What Is a Food Recall, and How Does It Impact Consumers?

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woman with food basket at supermarket

The Food and Drug Administration works to ensure the safety of the US food supply. So, when there is a problem that could impact consumer safety, the organization issues a food recall.

But what is a food recall? A food recall occurs when the FDA or a manufacturing business removes foods from the market due to violating safety regulations.

Most recalls are voluntary, with the food’s manufacturer or distributor initiating them. However, the FDA may also mandate a food recall in some circumstances.

Recalls exist to protect consumers. They help keep people safe by protecting them from problems that the recalled products could potentially cause.

What Are the Causes of Food Recalls?

Food recalls all stem from a violation of FDA regulations. However, since these regulations vary, the exact reason for the recall can also vary. Contamination is one of the most common reasons.

Physical Contamination

Physical contamination in food occurs whenever a non-food object ends up in food. Common examples include bones, dirt, stones, fingernails, wood chips, insects, hair, parts of the packaging material, and more.

Physical contamination is dangerous, partially because it is so unexpected. Most people aren’t expecting a sharp piece of rock in the food they are eating. So, if they bite down hard on it, it could cause damage.

But when food products accidentally contain items that are not edible, they can cause serious medical problems when ingested. Physical contamination can lead to any number of different injuries, ranging from small lacerations to serious cases of internal bleeding.

Chemical Contamination

Chemical contamination, as the name implies, occurs when a chemical contaminates the food. This could be heavy metals leaching into the environment, pollutants coming into contact with the crop, or even chemicals from food processing.

Depending on the exact nature of the chemical contamination, the effect will vary. Serious and even life-threatening effects are possible.

Biological Contamination

Biological contamination is contamination that occurs as a result of living organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, or other microbes, entering the food product.

These are common because these contaminants find a perfect living environment in some foods, like meat and poultry products, and they make their home there until someone consumes them. At that point, the person’s body may be their new home.

One example of biological contamination most consumers are familiar with is E. coli. These outbreaks happen when dangerous bacteria make their way into food, and there are reports of this happening nearly every year.

Physical Contamination in Food Recalls

worker in large pastry production line

Physical contamination poses a major risk and leads to serious food recalls. These sources of contamination can come from a number of different places.

Machinery and Processing Equipment

Often, food products pass through a series of machinery and processing equipment before they are fully prepared. Along the way, physical contaminants can make their way into the food. On top of this, parts of the machinery could break off and fall into the food.

Packaging Defects

Packaging is an invitation for problematic elements. If the packaging is damaged or designed incorrectly, it could end up in the food.

Environmental Contaminants

It is difficult to create a completely sterile environment, especially when dealing with food products. Without the right protocols in place, there is always a chance that an environmental contaminant will find its way into the product.

Transportation Issues

Sometimes, food leaves a processing facility untainted, but contamination occurs during transportation.

Every time food moves to a new location, it is at an increased risk of contamination. So, with each point of transit, the risk goes up.

Foreign Objects in Raw Ingredients

Raw ingredients are notorious for containing foreign objects. Rocks, dirt, and other foreign objects can get caught up in the harvesting process. If these aren’t sorted out early, they can end up in the final product.

Quality Control Failures

Quality control should eliminate many physical contamination issues. When issues slip past quality control, there often isn’t a second line of defense to catch them.

Advanced Technologies for Detecting Physical Contamination in Food Recalls

senior inspector checking quality of food

While avoiding physical contamination is an everyday challenge for the manufacturer or distributor, new technologies make it easier. The right detection systems can help detect physical contamination early and, thus, stop the distribution of affected products. They could prevent a food recall from being necessary.

Metal Detection Systems

Metal is a common type of physical contaminant. Luckily, it is relatively easy to detect. Metal detection systems alert producers to metal contaminants before they make their way to consumers.

Manufacturers can choose food metal detectors for various sensitivities and different types of foods.

X-Ray Inspection Systems

Metal detection systems are only good for metal. However, x-ray inspection systems catch non-metal materials, including glass, bone, ceramic, and more.

Optical Sorting Machines

Optical sorting machines are highly advanced pieces of machinery. They have the ability to instantly detect shifts in the wavelength of reflected light to determine if a product has physical contamination. Manufacturers can then quickly remove contaminated products.

Visual Inspections

Visual inspections are a relatively basic way of detecting physical contamination. However, with modern camera technologies, this basic practice has become much more advanced. High-definition technology, color recognition, and even artificial intelligence make visual inspections more effective than ever.

Impact of Food Recalls

woman having stomach ache after drinking milk

The impact of food recalls is massive, especially when compared to how they appear on the surface.

Consumer Health Risks

The most obvious impact of food recalls falls on the consumer. People could face injuries, illnesses, or even death. These are serious stakes that no one wants to risk.

Brand Reputation Damage

Food recalls have a direct impact on a brand’s reputation. They are often accompanied by news articles and the press, all of which are negative. Getting caught up in this media swarm will impact the brand’s reputation going forward.

Legal Consequences

Legal repercussions may follow a food recall. Consumers who were negatively impacted by the product in question may have grounds to sue as a result of their troubles. Even if the case lands in the company’s favor, the legal fees will have an impact.

Financial Losses

Finally, a recall directly impacts a company’s bottom line. Recalls lead to lost sales and wasted products.

How Should Consumers Respond to Food Recalls?

For consumers, dealing with a food recall starts with being aware of it. Watching out for safety alerts is half the battle.

Instructions usually accompany the issue of a recall notice. Consumers should follow any and all instructions that accompany the recall. Usually, this means they should dispose of the product or return it immediately.

Depending on the recall, there may be other steps to follow. If the contamination has a chance of spreading, it may be necessary to sterilize surfaces the product came into contact with. If someone has consumed the product, they may need to seek medical attention.

Mitigating the Impact of Food Recalls

Food recalls are an important tool for the FDA to ensure public safety. But consumers need to understand “What is a food recall?” and “How does it impact me?” In addition, manufacturers and distributors can take steps to reduce the chance of contamination of their products.

Looking to improve product safety in your business? Call TDI Packsys in Vernon Hills, IL, at 877-834-6750 to learn about customized solutions tailored to your needs.

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