What’s the Difference Between a Food Recall and an Outbreak of Food Poisoning?
Many consumers receive emails or letters from their favorite grocer, or see notices on television, about recalls of certain food items, be it Quaker Oat products, Jiff Peanut Butter, or pre-cut cantaloupe. These are issued for products that are believed to have the potential for being contaminated with a particular pathogen – in the case of the recent recalls of Quaker Oat products, Jiff Peanut Butter, and pre-cut cantaloupe, the potential contamination has been Salmonella bacteria. “Most” of these recalls are done after either a random test on a product demonstrates the presence of a particular pathogen, or a flaw is identified in the quality control processes that might leave the product open to contamination. These recalls are often engaged in “out of an abundance of caution.” In other words, the product is being recalled to prevent any one from becoming ill even if no human illnesses have yet been reported. In fact, in may recalls scenarios, no human illness is ever confirmed, and the exercise is completed with no injury to the consumers. In recall notices, if no human illnesses have been reported, the recall very often states that fact up front.
A food borne illness outbreak, on the other hand, is much more serious because (by definition) at least two individuals have become ill after consuming the same product. When individuals become ill and are properly tested, if they have acquired a communicable pathogen (such as salmonella, listeria, e. coli, Cyclospora, Hepatitis A, or Vibrio), the positive test result is sent to the health department for further investigation. If more than one person has become ill with a particular strain of bacteria, or there is a genetic match to another illness, or there is an “above normal” number of illnesses linked to one pathogen, then an outbreak may have been identified. Investigators quickly coalesce to find the common food item or particular location (such as a chain of restaurants) that is common to the victims. If a “source” food is identified, then an outbreak is identified. Every year there are a number of wide-spread outbreaks. If the suspect food Is still “on the shelves,” so to speak, a recall is initiated. This recall is being done because human illnesses have been identified, and not “out of an abundance o caution.” At times, when a food poisoning outbreak is identified, the food item is already “off the market” or “out of circulation,” and no recall is issue as it would not be helpful.
When there is a recall, a quick investigation on0line can usually find out if there are illnesses involved.
The Financial Question: When to Issue a Recall
What happens when a company faces a hard question, like where the food is believed to be contaminated but there are no human illnesses? A recall is always going to be expensive and logistically difficult. It also sends a message to customers that the product “may not be safe,” and this may discourage people from purchasing it in the future. These difficulties aside, responsible companies make consumer health a priority, and anytime there are significant questions about their product’s safety, they will recall the potentially dangerous products. Other companies resist issuing a recall unless they have to. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and state health agencies, often need to step in to enforce Good Manufacturing Practices Regulations, such as 21 C.F.R. part 110, subparts (A)-(G), which are statutory and regulatory provisions that apply to the manufacture, distribution, storage, and/or sale of the products or its ingredients. One such statute, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act at § 402(a), as codified at 21 U.S.C. § 342(a), bans the manufacture, sale and distribution of any “adulterated” food, which includes food that is contaminated with a pathogen like salmonella, listeria, e. coli, Cyclospora, Hepatitis A, or Vibrio. Most every state has a similar prohibition in its state code.
As such, when routine testing identifies a pathogen, or when sick people are liked through a trace-back investigation to a particular establishment or product, these state and federal agencies can force a recall or even force cessation of production/serving of the contaminate food.
Consumers Should Pay Attention to Recalls – and to Notifications of a Current Outbreak
According to one national food poisoning lawyer:
“There are so many food choices, and making the responsible ones have implications for our families and loved ones. I recommend paying attention to websites that notify the public of recalls and outbreaks, such as the FDA’s website, the CDC’s website, and websites like FoodPoisoningNews.com. You may find that, even now, you have food in your pantry or refrigerator that is subject to a recall!”