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Posts Tagged ‘food recalls’

What You (Probably) Did Not Know About Food Recalls

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

dole spinach

Photo: FDA

Food recalls have become so commonplace that most consumers no longer pay attention. In the month of July alone, there were 46 recalls by food processors who are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food recalls are conducted when there is a concern that a food may cause injury or illness to consumers. The suspect products are removed from food distribution channels—from distributors, restaurants, grocery stores and household kitchens. Reasons for a recall can include:

  • As a result of routine testing, a pathogen (or microbe that makes people sick) is found in the food
  • An outbreak occurs, it is traced back to a specific product, so the product is recalled
  • Discovery of a potential allergen, chemical (such as a recent turmeric recall due to lead) or physical contaminant (such as metal bits or plastic)
  • Mislabeling or misbranding of food. For example, a food may contain an allergen, such as nuts or eggs, but those ingredients do not appear on the label.

The policies regarding recalls have changed over the years. But as regulatory agencies, consumers and industry are looking for quicker responses to foodborne illnesses and food adulteration, the USDA, FDA and even voluntary third party inspection programs are demanding more attention to food industry recall procedures. It is usually in the company’s best interest to conduct a recall quickly and efficiently—ultimately reducing the risk for a contaminated product injuring a consumer or causing a foodborne disease outbreak.

Meat/Poultry

The USDA FSIS is the agency that is responsible for ensuring our meat, poultry and processed eggs products are safe. At this point in time, the USDA does not have a mandatory recall authority. They can request that a company conduct a recall, but this is a request and technically the recall is voluntary. However, the agency does have other recourse. They can withhold the grant of inspection, meaning the plant must cease operations; they can detain or seize product; and they can issue public health alerts. As a result, companies generally comply with the request to recall.

The USDA/FSIS then assists the operation with identifying how much product to recall, ensuring that subsequent customers—further processors or retailers, for example, are informed of the recall. Finally, the agency conducts recall efficiency checks to make sure that all product is out of commerce in a timely fashion.

Other foods

The FDA is responsible for regulating approximately 80% of the food industry. Any non-meat product including fish, fruits and vegetables, whole eggs, and baked goods would all be included. Like USDA, FDA can request that a company conducts a recall, but if the company refuses, there are legal actions that can be taken to address public health risk. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 gave FDA the authority to mandate a recall if an operation has produced a product that risks the public health.

What the food companies are doing

In recent years, the development of recall plans and traceback systems have become standard for many in the food industry. For the most part, these are voluntary; though new USDA/FSIS rules do and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will, as it is implemented, require all plants to have a recall plan in place.

A recall plan is developed before the occurrence of a recall, so that in event of the need for one, the company can refer to a plan that is in place, rather than scrambling to figure out what to do. A recall plan generally includes:

  • A description of the roles and responsibilities of the operators
  • Contact lists—for regulators, lawyer, insurance company, customers, media
  • Lot identification/batch identification, traceback information
  • Procedures for disposition of recalled product
  • Record keeping procedures/forms

Regulators and industry have pretty much got this recall thing figured out, though there are still concerns regarding the speed of the process. There is concern that between the time that an outbreak occurs or pathogens are found in a food and the time the recall becomes public, the product could be purchased and consumed and consumers sickened. Timing is important in an outbreak. Rapid responses are particularly important for higher risk recalls.

While recalls are incredibly common, not all recalls have equal urgency and impact on the public health. A Class I recall is the most serious. This involves a food product that has a reasonable probability of causing serious injury, illness or death. These recalls are likely when a food is found to be contaminated with a pathogen such as E. Coli O157:H7 or Listeria monocytogenes during routine testing or if the food has already been implicated in an outbreak.

A Class II recall may cause temporary illness that typically result in full recovery—death and serious consequences are not likely. An example of a Class II recall would be the presence of small amounts of allergen, or small, non-sharp foreign object. Finally, Class III recalls are not likely to cause illness, but are still in violation of the law, such as undeclared ingredients.

As a consumer, how can you possibly know about all these recalls? First, take comfort in knowing that of the 46 recalls announced in July, “only” six were associated with foodborne illness outbreaks—and most of these outbreaks are fairly localized. About 25% were due to undeclared allergens. So, obviously, if you have a food allergy it might make sense for you to know pay closer attention.

If you have a grocery store customer card, you may like to know that when a recall or outbreak occurs, stores often use this as a tool to find you and notify you of the recall—generally if an illness is associated with the recall. You see, they know exactly what you are buying. Some might find this to be comforting, others might not!

News outlets will often inform watchers, listeners or readers of recalls impacting those in Connecticut. But then, you need to be watching or listening to a broadcast or reading a local newspaper.

Or, you can catch up online. Because there are two food regulation agencies, it makes sense to go to one of two places where a compilation of recent recalls, from both FDA regulated and USDA/FSIS regulated foods. The UConn Extension food safety website has a “widget” on the main page that lists recent recalls. Find this at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu. In addition, you may find this list at www.foodsafety.gov as well.

For more information on food recalls, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Listeria and Fresh Produce

What is Listeria and why is it showing up in fresh produce?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

 

dole spinach

Photo: FDA

Yet another outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes has been attributed to fresh produce: bagged lettuce in this case. You may recall the 2011 outbreak associated with cantaloupe that turned out to be the deadliest Listeria outbreak ever in the US. And, Listeria was also the cause of an outbreak tied to apples (and caramel apples) in 2015.

It’s not only produce that has been associated with Listeria contamination. In 2015 alone, there were over 45 recalls of various FDA regulated food products, including pet foods (raw/frozen for the most part), deli salads, cheeses, sprouts, processed salmon products, and ice cream (Blue Bell, Jeni’s). Recalls also were carried out for apples and apple slices, spinach, and frozen vegetables.

So what is Listeria monocytogenes (LM) and where is it coming from?

LM is a bacterial species that was first described in 1926 after an outbreak in guinea pigs and rabbits. For many years, it was known as a disease of animals, including small ruminants, often called “circling” disease. One source of the disease is spoiled silage, causing illness during the winter and spring months after long-term storage of silage. When I first started working in food safety education, it was known as an “emerging pathogen” as it was just starting to become a big problem in the human food system.

The first documentation of a major human outbreak was in 1981. This Canadian outbreak was attributed to coleslaw made from cabbage likely contaminated by sheep manure. The outbreak resulted in 41 cases of illness, 34 of which were pregnant women. There were 18 deaths.

Since then, Listeria has been the cause of outbreaks in dairy products, including a variety of cheeses, processed meats such as hot dogs and cold cuts, sprouts, and, most recently fresh produce. Increased testing over time by government agencies including the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has also resulted in many recalls that may have helped to reduce outbreaks from products that are removed from the marketplace.

So why is this now a problem for fresh produce?

Listeria has become pretty much ubiquitous in the food-processing environment. While it’s certainly present in the soil, water, and animal feces, the big problems often arise from food that is processed and/or held in a processing or storage facility that is wet and cold. This is where the bug can grow and multiply if not dealt with by employing scrupulous sanitation programs.

Some of the characteristics of Listeria that make it a particular problem are:

  • While most consumers are likely to think that it is what they ate in the last 48 hours that made them sick, Listeria has a long incubation period—as much as 3 weeks. This means that when you eat a food contaminated with Listeria, you may not feel ill or experience some of the worst complications, such as miscarriage until weeks later. Foodborne illness experts often start an investigation with a food recall. Do you remember what you ate for lunch on a Tuesday two or three weeks ago?
  • Foods that may be more likely to be contaminated with Listeria are ready to eat foods such as cold cuts, other deli foods, cheese or some fresh fruits and vegetables. Therefore, we do not cook it away.
  • While most people are at least somewhat aware of the risk of Listeria from hot dogs, cold cuts or unpasteurized cheeses, they are less likely to connect it to bagged lettuce or cantaloupe. In the 1990s there was a string of outbreaks related to hot dogs and cold cuts. In 2003, FSIS passed a Listeria Rule that addressed many of the problems in that industry.
  • Listeria likes cold temperatures-found in refrigerators, coolers and cool processing rooms. Wet AND cold processing environments are Listeria’s
  • Inadequate or ineffective sanitation practices can miss the Listeria that might be hiding in floor drains or biofilms, which are a substance not unlike plaque on your teeth that forms when bacteria adhere to a surface, then create a matrix that can build up over time and protect the bacteria from routine cleaning practices. Periodically, these biofilms can break open, releasing the bacteria to contaminate a seemingly clean surface.

Several Listeria outbreaks have been traced to packing facilities (such as the recent apple and cantaloupe outbreaks) where cold, wet environments that are not cleaned adequately can be the problem. Floor drains, conveyor rollers, dunk tanks can all be sources of this bug. Perhaps a contributing condition might be the presence of animal manure on the farm.

Yet another issue is that consumers are demanding that their fresh produce is provided in ever more convenient forms—cleaned, chopped lettuce in bags, sliced apples, cut celery, coleslaw mix, to name just a few. The more handling, the more opportunity for contamination.

So what is a consumer to do?

First, know your risk. Listeria is a bit of a chameleon. We are all routinely exposed to LM, due to its ubiquitous nature. Yet we do not all get sick from it. A young adult with a healthy immune system may make it through a bout of Listeriosis with barely a symptom. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “at least 90% of people who get Listeria infections are in a higher risk group. Healthy children and adults occasionally get infected with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.”

So, if you are 65 or older, have a compromised immune system due to illness or medical interventions, and if you are pregnant, avoid foods that are more likely to be contaminated with LM. Do not eat foods from the deli case, cold cuts or hot dogs unless you heat them to 165 degrees F. Do not drink raw milk or eat cheeses made from raw milk. Fresh produce is trickier. You certainly can cook most fruits and vegetables, but you may not want to cook everything—though you could add spinach and other greens to a hot soup. So the next best thing is to handle fresh fruits and vegetables safely.

  • Rinse raw fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under cool running tap water before eating, cutting, or cooking. Even if the produce will be peeled, wash it first. There is no need for special veggie washes. Studies have shown that cold water alone (along with brushing when appropriate) can remove 85-98% of bacteria.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush (wash the brush in a dishwasher after using).
  • Dry the produce with a paper towel.
  • Store fresh fruits and vegetables in a clean, DRY, location. Always refrigerate once cut. Store away from raw meats, poultry, fish or eggs.

And, keep your refrigerator clean.

Remember that Listeria monocytogenes likes cold, wet environments—even your home fridge. Using an appliance thermometer, make sure that your refrigerator is at 40°F or lower and the freezer 0°F or lower.

Be sure to clean up all spills in your refrigerator right away–especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat and poultry, and, of course, those rotting fruits and veggies that lie forgotten at the bottom of the drawer. Regularly clean the inside walls and shelves of your refrigerator with hot water and liquid soap, then rinse and pat dry.

And finally, be sure to monitor your fruit and veggie storage drawer. Throw out anything that is beginning to spoil, is moldy or has other signs of decay.

For more information on safe handling of produce and preventing foodborne illness, go to www.foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.