Food recalls are on the rise, but causes are often hard to pinpoint
To find recall information
What is listeria?
Listeria is an infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the listeria monocytogenes bacteria. It affects mostly at-risk populations, like the elderly, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. The main symptoms of listeriosis, the infection from listeria, are usually fever and muscle aches accompanied by diarrhea and other intestinal issues. Pregnant women typically have non-specific symptoms, like fatigue and aches, but non-pregnant women may experience symptoms like stiff neck, confusion, headache, loss of balance and convulsions. Symptoms can appear up to two months after eating infected food. The disease can be life-threatening and can cause miscarriage or other complications during pregnancy.
Source: Centers for Disease Control
At stores like King Soopers or Safeway, the bottom of receipts for consumers using a loyalty card lists any recalled products they may have purchased. The blocky letters, printed in between coupons and fuel points can be easy to overlook, but if consumers have skimmed past this part of their receipt before, they’re likely paying attention to it now. Receipts are getting longer as recalls are getting more frequent.
So far in 2016, the number of recalls issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service is the same — 29 — as it was for all of 2015. The Food and Drug administration, which also handles recall cases, issued 38 food recalls in May 2016 and 29 in April.
But how do these things happen?
A company behind one of these recalls is Greeley-based poultry business Pilgrim’s Pride, owned by JBS USA. On April 7, the corporation recalled about 41,000 pounds of fully cooked chicken products because of possible plastic, wood, metal or rubber in the meat. By the end of the month, the recall had been expanded to 4.5 million pounds of chicken, and on May 13, the company issued the third expansion of the recall, bringing the total to more than 5.5 million pounds and expanding the scope beyond breaded products to also include seasoned chicken and chicken wings. The most recent expansion specifically pertains to metal in the products.
As of April 25, Pilgrim’s Pride head of corporate affairs Cameron Bruett said the company was prioritizing getting as much of the recalled product out of consumer hands as possible, and that no adverse effects from the products had been reported.
“In an effort to safeguard public health going forward, we are retraining all team members and assessing both our processes and in-plant systems to return Pilgrim’s Waco to our high internal food safety and quality standards,” Bruett said April 26.
Pilgrims Pride declined to comment on their management practices and efforts to minimize food contamination. No information has been released about the cause of the contamination.
Gale Prince, president of SAGE Food Safety, said extraneous material contamination is rare because plants have fail-safes in place.
Many companies use magnets to pull any metal-contaminated products off the production line and x-rays to find any materials that shouldn’t be there. Prince said if plastic bags are used anywhere in a plant, they’re typically brightly colored, so if they get into the production line, a bright blue plastic will stand out against a white meat. Some plants use what’s called a bath on the production line. In the case of potatoes, the bath would sift any rocks or dirt away from the product and sink them to the bottom of the water. The potatoes float on through.
Prince said obviously, some mistakes do happen, but good management practices like these should — and do — help minimize the number.
Bob Delmore, a meat science professor at Colorado State University, said the hardest part of cases like these is finding exactly what went wrong and where. Delmore used to work at a meat processing plant in California, and he said when there were food safety concerns, the plant would thoroughly examine every component of production, including people, materials, machinery and external factors. Sometimes, the answer is easy — a specific type of nail found in a product that matches those in the wooden loading palettes. Other times, an unidentified plastic could be from a hardhat falling or something slipping out of a pocket and into the production line.
Still, recall cases such as these are rare and seldom result in people getting hurt, Delmore said.
Though the Pilgrim’s Pride recall is large, it’s not the largest in the company’s history. In 2002, the company recalled more than 27 million pounds of ready-to-eat poultry products because of listeria concerns. That was before JBS USA purchased the company in 2009.
Despite the size of the current case, Price said, recalls because of contamination are unusual. The more common causes are possible microbiological infection or non-disclosed allergies. Listeria is one of the most common, he said. Concerns about the bacteria prompted several high-profile recalls in the past month from big brands, such as Kroger, Pictsweet, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. On May 2, Washington-based CRF Frozen Foods recalled more than 350 frozen produce products that had been distributed to all 50 states and Canada because of possible listeria contamination. Eight cases of listeria have been confirmed and linked back to CRF.
In 2011, Rocky Ford Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Granada were behind the largest listeria outbreak ever, with 147 people infected across 28 states. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33 people died.
Listeria is often found in soil and water and can be carried by animals without symptoms. When a food product or factory surface comes into contact with the listeria bacteria, it can become contaminated. Price said listeria is easily killed by heating, but lives through long periods of freezing or refrigeration, which is why recent years have seen more recall cases of raw or frozen fruits and vegetables.
Plants often prevent cases of listeria and other food-borne illnesses through a heating process, such as pasteurization with milk.
When recalls are issued for any reason, the company has to be able to prove the last time the affected product was verified safe. In cases of biological recalls, that may be the last time a thermometer on a heating chamber was replaced or calibrated, Price said. For foreign matter contamination, that may be the last time a technician checked the x-ray machine. Delmore said sometimes, that’s why recalls are issued encompassing a large time-range of production, like the Pilgrim’s Pride recall, which includes chicken that left the factory as long ago as August 2014.
Though the causes behind the different types of recalls vary, the end result is the same — increased consumer concern and down the line, impacts on business and the food industry at large, Price said.
He pointed to 2007, when Peter Pan brand peanut butter was recalled due to salmonella contamination. Though peanut butter was Peter Pan’s only recalled product, the company saw decreased sales across the board, as did the peanut butter industry as a whole.
Any recall is a problem for the agriculture industry, said Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. He said situations like the Pilgrim’s Pride recall are unfortunate, because what may be an isolated incident can cause public panic.
“People get scared about whether their food is safe,” Shawcroft said. “Most often it’s a minor thing.” ❖