Thursday, January 6, 2011


Friends have been asking me to explain food recalls. So here are the basics on how they operate in the United States. But keep in mind that the actual situation is much more complex - and may be changing under the new food safety laws.

Why do food recalls take place? Because a food product that is contaminated, adulterated or mislabeled has got into our food supply, and needs to be quickly removed before it causes harm.

Who does the recalling? Recalls are almost always done by the food company responsible for releasing the product. They have to pay the costs of getting the products back, and suffer the negative publicity, damage to their brand and liability threats.

What does government do? At present, government can request, but not order a company to recall a dangerous food product (except in the case of infant formulas and foods which are "vectors of communicable diseases"). And yes, it can lean on the company pretty heavily at times, even to the point where it eventually forces the company to do the recall, or, go out of business. The two federal agencies involved are the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, depending which food product is involved. How they deal with the culprit company varies to some extent.

How voluntary are recalls? The game that is played - and the language often used in recall notifications - is that the recall is "voluntary" or even "precautionary, voluntary." Sometimes even words such as "out of excess of caution" are used. But let's face it - what company wants a recall?

What should consumers do if they hear of a recall? Yes, "if" is more correct than "when" - since many people don't hear about food recalls, and many food products that are recalled don't even reach the FDA or USDA public alert system. What consumers should do is to : 1) check whether these products have been sold in their state and their area stores; 2) check whether they have bought and/or eaten any recently; 3) avoid purchasing any until the "all clear" is issued. On the last point: don't assume that your stores always quickly remove recalled foods from their shelves , or have a checkout block that stops you buying them. Some slip up, or just don't hear about the bad news (usually smaller stores). All said and done, you have to take care of yourself.


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