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How Safe Is Our Food?

What food recall trends through 2019 mean for Americans' health

Americans rely on a vast network of farms, slaughterhouses and manufacturers to provide safe food every day. In 2019 alone, high-profile recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks linked to flour, chicken strips and romaine lettuce reveal that more action is necessary to protect public health.

While our food safety system has improved significantly over the last 100 years, when toxics, fake foodstuffs and bacteria regularly infiltrate the supply, it is clear there is more work to do. In a modern society, the daily act of eating should not undermine the health of the population. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to get a handle on trends within the food system as ongoing, individual testing results are hard to access and may not indicate what hazards are reaching people’s mouths.

In 2019, there were a number of high profile food recalls, including a nationwide recall of romain lettuce, and millions of pounds of chicken products contaminated with metal, plastic and other material.
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Our food safety systems: more improvements needed

In 2011, the United States made significant upgrades to the food safety system by passing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This law, pushed through in the wake of a number of significant food recalls, required enhanced tracking of foodborne illness outbreaks and improved oversight of the food production system, putting in place preventive controls and updated FDA recall authority. 

New food safety plans are helping

However, Congress failed to update safety standards for meat and poultry monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The bifurcated food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources. Food recalls can provide insight into the health of our food safety infrastructure. Each recall is an instance when the system failed to prevent contamination, putting people’s health at risk.

Our research shows diverging trends in recalls of meat and poultry, compared to processed foods between 2013 and 2019.
*Recalls that are most likely to cause a health hazard or death are classified as “Class 1” recalls.

The enhanced ability to link infections together and trace them back to the source over the last decade through new technology, such as whole genome sequencing, may explain some of these findings. But whether we’ve always had a food safety problem and now we can see it, or the problem is getting worse in recent years, misses the point. Americans should be confident that their food is safe and uncontaminated from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.

In addition, the number of recent high-profile recalls that stick in the public mind are the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 people in the U.S. get foodborne illnesses with 128,000 individuals hospitalized and 3,000 dying every year. These infections include E. coli and salmonella poisoning as well as Clostridium, Campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii. The cumulative public health risk of foodborne illness warrants further study into causes and solutions.

Americans should be able to trust that their food is safe.

The food recalls illustrated by the case studies highlighted above raise concerns about the efficacy of current policies. Adding to these issues, while we buy our food at the same stores, farmer stands and restaurants, the current, convoluted system splits primary responsibility for different foods between the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA. This has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources.

Policy Solutions 
Our findings make it clear that our food safety defenses need an across-the-board upgrade. Gaps in public health protections, enforcement and inspection make it too likely that dangers will reach Americans' plates with potentially disastrous consequences. And, when these dangers are identified through analysis of disease vectors and health impacts, our recall system often allows hazards to continue to impact people’s health.

To solve these problems, we recommend a serious boost to our food safety system.

  • 1. Food production and testing
    • Test water used for irrigation or watering of produce for hazardous pathogens.
    • Set health-based bacterial load levels for agriculture watering to prevent contamination.
  • 2. Inspection and monitoring
    • Require plants to identify the most common pathogens associated with meat and poultry products as hazards likely to occur and address them in their safety plans.
    • Establish clear enforcement consequences for recurring violations of food safety protections or plans.
    • Update food safety standards at facilities every three years.
    • Declare antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella as an adulterant in meat and poultry.
  • 3. Traceability
    • Improve traceability throughout the food supply chain through network-based tracking technologies.
    • Retailers notify consumers that products they may have in their homes are recalled.
  • 4. Recall effectiveness
    • Require disclosure of retailers selling products for all Class I and Class II recalls, establish a timeline for release of that information, and include packaged goods.
    • Penalize companies who continue to sell products after a recall.
    • Develop programs for retailers to directly notify customers about food recalls.