Our food supply chain typically delivers an affordable and dizzying smorgasbord of flavor, texture, and variety that satisfies consumers. Food that makes us ill is atypical. Fortunately the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are on the job to prevent, or at least minimize, the damage from contaminated or badly labeled food. From public reports, we learn of successes in the inspection and reporting activities and cooperation with retail outlets and food processing plants.
In the last 5 weeks, 80 food recalls were attributed to Listeria, Salmonella, small metal fragments, undeclared milk, undeclared peanut, undeclared sibutramine, undeclared egg, undeclared Ponceau (color), potential for premature spoilage, e.coli O121, inadequate pasteurization, undeclared soy lecithin, high lead levels, undeclared walnuts, unapproved drugs, and undeclared almond or hazelnut.
Among the reports, undeclared nut pieces and Listeria were the most common problem. Peanut and tree nut allergy afflicts 1.1% of adults and children so catching mislabeled products can help thousands of consumers. The FDA does not orchestrate a recall due to the presence of nuts, rather to the lack of mention on the product’s packaging.
Egg allergy has an estimated prevalence of 1.6% in children. Again, the FDA objects to the lack of mention of eggs on the food packaging label. Failure to properly label food contents is the most common cause for a recall, and although it might seem just a clerical failure, it could be motivated by the cost saved by purchasing ingredients that are less rigidly controlled for homogeneity. For whatever reason, the failures should not get a free pass on inspections.
Contaminants such as Listeria, e.coli, metal and plastic particles, lead and unapproved drugs speak for themselves. These problems enter our food supply chain due to the bad sanitation and poor quality control exercised by food processors. Aside from recalling the contaminated products, the factories, storage, transport and food workers should be inspected at the processors’ expense and the food workers should be re-educated on mandatory aseptic techniques for food handling. Some will argue that increasing the cost of a recall will undermine processor’s cooperation in pushing bad products beyond consumers reach. There is merit in that perspective but it should not control our options for protecting the public.
If a contaminated food product is not halted before it reaches the retail level, results can be deadly. In one recent example, Listeria contaminated more than 40 brands of vegetables that originated in Washington state. A major processor shipped some directly to retail stores and some to re-packagers. The Listeria-infected vegetables led to 9 people who were made severely ill in 4 states. The connection was proven by tracing the genetics of Listeria in the victims and Listeria in the vegetables.
The recalls are not limited to small-time food processors and retailers. They occur in some well-known brands of food and some national supermarkets. While there are some tragic reports of people made ill by food contamination, the incidence of these illnesses is small compared with the more than 300 million who are unaffected each day. In this regard, the FDA and USDA seem to be effective agencies.