Food recalls tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Safety Administration (FDA) fell more than 35 percent in the first quarter of 2019. American consumers enjoyed the lowest number of recalls this quarter since 2015. Though that may seem like good news and an overall increase in food safety and quality, a new report suggests the decline in food recalls is actually due to the government shutdown in early 2019.
The historic government shutdown limited or completely stopped most of the government food safety inspection services, resulting in statistics that look good for the consumer but really only indicate a lapse in government oversight.
Longest Government Shutdown in History
The U.S. government shutdown this year was the longest in American history, lasting a record 35 days. During a government shutdown only essential offices and programs in federal agencies stay open. Many ground-level departments and programs, such as food safety inspections, stop completely. As a result, farmers, distribution companies, and other food producers either failed to receive the benefit of USDA inspections or operated without the benefit of those inspections. As a result, American consumers are paying the price.
The Impact on Food Recalls
Both the FDA and the FSIS continued some food safety inspections during the shutdown, but the agencies were not fully operational. Further, inspectors who were active were not being paid. According to a report published in Food Dive, uninspected food products slipped by federal agencies while they were operating with a skeleton crew.
These products ended up on grocery store shelves and in American homes without the benefit of federal inspections. It seems very likely that this lapse in oversight could result in harm to consumers, and could result in a continued uptick in food recalls in the coming months.
As it stands, statistics from the first quarter of 2019 seem encouraging, but the concern remains that uninspected products may still make people sick. Here is what the report found about the first quarter in 2019:
- The total number of recalls dropped for the first time since 2012.
- The number of FDA food recalls is lower that it has been since 2015, declining more than 35 percent since last quarter.
- The number of USDA FSIS food recalls declined more than 7 percent from last quarter.
- The total number of pounds of recalled food decreased more than 91 percent.
The director of SteriCycle Expert Solutions summed it up succinctly, saying,
“Fewer inspections mean more potentially dangerous products entered the market unnoticed during this period, which could also have an impact in the months ahead.”
An Overview of Food Recalls Since the Shutdown
Despite the significant dip in food recalls this quarter, food producers are still issuing recalls across the industry.
- For the last two quarters, undeclared allergens present in food products were the most frequent cause of FDA food recalls. In the last six months, about 91 percent of individual food units recalled in participation with the FDA were pulled from the shelves because of an undeclared allergen.
- The USDA has found about 40 percent of food recalls concern the presence of foreign matter contaminants in food products. Of this group, about 40 percent of the contamination is related to plastic.
- About 18 percent of the food recalls initiated by the USDA were due to no inspection at all.
- Food recalls due to foodborne illness concerns are on the rise. Recalls associated with salmonella, cyclospora and campylobacter increased in the last year.
Some high-profile food recalls that have taken place this year include:
- The waves of recalled poultry products from Tyson due to foreign material contaminants.
- Chips Ahoy cookies recalled for the presence of a solidified substance.
- California avocados recalled for Listeria concerns.
- Butterball ground turkey recalled because of Salmonella illness.
- A Texas seafood company’s recall of catfish products due to no inspection.
- Frozen foods recalled due to an undeclared allergen.
Innovations in Food Safety
Despite concerns about a jump in food recalls to come, the report about the first quarter of 2019 isn’t all bad news. Major players in the food industry are developing advanced tools to detect and track food-borne illnesses faster than ever before. It is hopeful that this will minimize their impact.
The group who produced the report suggests that the recent increase in food recalls for foodborne illness could also be due to the use of culture-independent diagnostic tests for food products. This is a more sensitive testing method to test for foodborne illness contamination. Other companies are implementing an automated food safety platform that can detect contaminants such as Salmonella and E. coli within 24 hours instead of the 3-5 days most testing methods require.
Consumers Want Transparency
Food producers issue food recalls for failure to disclose allergens almost as often as they issue them for contaminants or other safety issues. Consumers want to trust that the food they’re buying contains no foreign material and won’t make them sick. American households rely on food labeling to warn them of allergens to keep their family members safe. Sadly, that is not always the case.
Shoppers increasingly demand transparency from their food suppliers. Today, about 75 percent of consumers are willing to switch brands in favor of products that provide more in-depth information on their label and in their advertising. That’s about 35 percent more consumers than would have switched for the same reason in 2016. Now more than ever consumers want a closer connection to their food.
This is perhaps due to the fact that almost half of American households have someone following a diet or health program. Examples include a diabetic diet, a vegetarian diet, or a restricted diet due to food allergies. Consumers value products with detailed labels that fully disclose everything about the product inside. More than half of Americans say they’re willing to pay more for products with those in-depth labels.
Agencies and Transparency
Federal agencies like the FDA and the FSIS form an important part of transparency. Their regulatory activities are the failsafe to make sure that companies are disclosing all known allergens or hazards. It is safe to say that Americans highly value the reports and information provided to the public by the FDA, the USDA, and the FSIS. However, the historic government shutdown this year deprived consumers of the benefit of this information.
It seems probable that the low number of recalls this quarter will be replaced by an unusually high number of recalls in the upcoming quarters as consumers, not a regulatory agency, are the ones who discover problems with the food supply.
Questions about Food Recalls? Talk to a Food Safety Attorney
Federal inspection agencies provide an immensely valuable service to consumers. The government shutdown deprived Americans of the benefit of information for more than a month. However, the food producers and distributors who make these products available ultimately have responsibility when their products hurt consumers.
If someone in your family has required medical attention due to a foodborne illness or injury caused by a contaminated or dangerous food product, you may have a legal claim against the at-fault party. A recall is not a necessary condition of legal action. Contact the food safety attorneys at Bad Food Recall to learn more about your rights. Contact us online or call 1-877-534-5750.