Food Recalls: Why They Happen and Why We Should Care

food rotten smells badIt’s a fact of life that bacteria are everywhere around us. They’re on our clothes, in our guts and all over the food we eat. Most of those bacteria don’t do any harm. In fact, many of them help us. But occasionally we come across a few bad apples that can do us some serious damage. On the show, I’ve covered several cases of food-borne illness and Sabra’s recent hummus recall is just one more in a very long list that just seem to keep getting longer. I think it’s important we all know how our food is made, tested and kept safe, which is why I want to take a few moments to talk a little about the food safety.

Who regulates food production?

The modern food industry has mostly shifted production away from local making of food to industrial production of food that then gets shipped to locations across the nation. While farmer’s markets are making a comeback in a big way, they don’t come anywhere near competing. When this move to industrial food production took place, factories weren’t always the cleanest of facilities. You might have read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at some point in school, which talked in part about the unsanitary practices of meat preparation.

That and other calls for regulation at the beginning of the last century led to the formation of what became the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has become an enormous agency with many roles, but they’re responsible for the safety of food in the U.S. The FDA both makes regulations about all aspects of food production from the cleanliness of the factory floors to the levels of bacteria allowable in various foods.

How is my food tested?

The FDA has a list of bacteria that can make people sick and endanger their health. They make that list available to food suppliers and require their food to be free of those dangerous organisms. Producers are required to monitor their food to make sure it doesn’t contain these harmful organisms. Those tests are recorded and the FDA periodically audits producers to make sure they’re testing the way they’re supposed to. They also inspect facilities and test products themselves to ensure that food producers are doing their job in keeping food safe to eat and free from dangerous bacteria.

Food is also labeled in a way that allows food regulators to track the food back to where it was made and where the ingredients came from. That way if someone gets sick in Indiana, they can still protect people in New York who might be eating something made in the same factory.

Food makers generally follow these guidelines carefully because punishments ensue if they’re making potentially dangerous food. The FDA can halt production at a factory, seize entire batches of food, order a recall, halt the sale of a certain product, or suspend a company’s ability to make food all together if they think food is unsafe.

Why do outbreaks happen?

Foodborne illness occurs for many different reasons and each outbreak is different. In some cases, a food producer may have been lax with testing or cleaning practices. In others, it may have been a supplier, like a farm, that sent contaminated ingredients that were then incorporated into a product. These lapses tend to occur when companies try to cut corners to lower the cost of their goods or how much it costs to make food.

Before the revision of the food safety laws in 2011, inspections were uncommon because there weren’t enough inspectors to cover the huge number of food producers in the U.S. Inspections now occur at least every three years. Unfortunately, three years is still a long time and regulators don’t always catch everything. The fact that 50 million people are still thought to get sick from food every year from a wide variety of foods means the industry is far from perfect. More needs to be done to safeguard American health and prevent some of the 3,000 annual deaths related to foodborne illness.

What can you do?

The easiest thing to do is to practice good food hygiene at home. Doing so will help to remove some of the potentially harmful things that might be on your food. Next, you can check out any food recalls and even sign up for alerts when recalls happen at so that you know when food you bought might be contaminated.

Another step is to buy locally. Farmers markets are good places to buy safe foods for two reasons. First, the producers are often subject to both FDA and specific market rules about food safety. Second, you can always ask how something is made. You’re often talking to the person who baked your bread and they can answer questions about how they made it.

But I also think we should demand more from our food producers. We all put our trust in companies to make things that won’t make us sick. Washing vegetables is one thing, but when food comes prepackaged, we assume that it’s safe and contains no bacteria The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act went a long way to improving the FDA’s ability to keep food producers clean and responsible, but more needs to be done. If you’re concerned about food safety, talk to members of your community and local government about steps you can take to keep food safe for you and your family.