Recalls of romaine, Goldfish are only the tip of the contamination iceberg

 
 
Updated 1/17/2019 9:28 AM
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  • A new report shows that food recalls have increased 10 percent since 2013, with meat and poultry incidents soaring 67 percent.

    A new report shows that food recalls have increased 10 percent since 2013, with meat and poultry incidents soaring 67 percent. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker

If it feels like you're reading about a new food recall practically everyday, it's not all in your head -- or stomach.

A report released Thursday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that recalls of food have increased 10 percent since 2013, with meat and poultry incidents soaring 67 percent. The most hazardous -- Class 1 recalls, or when there's a "reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death" -- edged up 6 percent overall and a whopping 83 percent for meat and poultry, the study found.

The authors aren't sure whether the uptick in recalls is due to a more contaminated food supply or simply because new technology makes it easier to catch bacteria in products. Either way, the authors argue, any number of recalls is too high since no consumer should have to worry that food purchased at a grocery store will make them sick.

"We're doing better but we clearly still have a gap here," said co-author Adam Garber. "We eat more meat and it's less safe, so that's very concerning."

Recalled food can often be traced back to contamination that occurs during production, like the romaine lettuce recalled from Yuma, Arizona, last spring. After an E. coli outbreak killed five people and made more than 200 ill, the Food and Drug Administration determined that infested water used to irrigate the crop was likely to blame.

That was just one of several recalls last year to generate panic -- and press. A separate lettuce recall in late 2018 had consumers and restaurant chains alike scrambling for salad alternatives. In the final months of 2018, Jennie-O recalled hundreds of thousands of pounds of turkey potentially infected with salmonella. Kellogg Co. issued a nationwide recall of its Honey Smacks cereal in June after a salmonella outbreak; the next month, Campbell Soup recalled four varieties of Goldfish crackers over a similar contamination risk.

Still, while overall recall levels are up from 2013, they are trending down from recent highs. This could be due to updated food safety laws from the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act that went into effect for different sites starting in 2016, Garber said.

But food safety experts argue that the number of recalls should be zero.

"We still have a problem with our system," said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We don't ever want to see people getting sick."

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