Food recalls happen much more often than the public typically realizes. However, when national attention spotlights a company recall, it has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the brand and even initiate liability consequences for decision-makers. As consumers become more informed about food safety issues and government agencies tighten their regulations, the number of recalls occurring across the country continues to increase.
Specific industry segments have been hit harder by food recalls than others. Understanding these numbers is an important element of identifying prominent food safety risks and taking steps to ensure your organization is addressing them properly. In this article, we’ll delve into the statistics surrounding food recalls and shed light on the truth behind the numbers.
Food Recall Numbers by Industry
Each industry faces unique food safety challenges, but every group is responsible for protecting consumers from the potential health risks and illnesses caused by product contamination and mismanagement. Following is a breakdown of recent recall numbers according to industry:
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the meat industry experienced a total of 131 recalls across the country — affecting 20,880,574 pounds of product — in 2017. Of these recalls:
- 76% were categorized as Class I (a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death)
- 17% were categorized as Class II (a potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food)
- 7% were categorized as Class III (a situation in which eating the food will not cause adverse health consequence)
The top cause of food recalls in the meat industry was Undeclared Allergens, followed by Extraneous Material, Other (producing without inspection, failure to present for import inspection, labeling issues, etc.) and then Listeria monocytogenes.
Here is how the industry was affected based on species of meat:
- Poultry (including egg products) = 45 recalls totaling 9,620,850 pounds
- Mixed = 35 recalls totaling 9,761,167
- Beef = 28 recalls totaling 909,242 pounds
- Pork = 20 recalls totaling 502,430 pounds
- Siluriformes fish (catfish) = 3 recalls totaling 86,885 pounds
Milk tops the list of foods recalled for undeclared allergens, with 110 related recalls tallied in 2017 (an increase from 101 recalls in 2016). Mislabeled products containing milk continue to be a leading cause of food recalls in the U.S.
In addition, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has conducted a long-term study that indicates an increase in the number of raw milk-associated disease outbreaks across the country as more states allow the legal sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. These were some of the most insightful findings:
- From 2007 through 2012, 26 states reported 81 outbreaks linked to raw milk. The outbreaks caused 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations.
- From 2007 through 2009, 30 outbreaks were linked to raw milk. This increased to 51 outbreaks from 2010 through 2012.
- Three germs caused most raw milk outbreaks from 2007 through 2012:
- Campylobacter = 81%
- Shiga toxin-producing E. coli = 17%
- Salmonella = 3%
- The average number of outbreaks linked to raw milk each year was four times higher from 2007 through 2012 than from 1993 through 2006.
- In raw milk outbreaks, children aged 1 to 4 accounted for 38% of illnesses caused by Salmonella and 28% of illnesses caused by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
According to Mike Doyle, Regents’ Professor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, 33% of today’s foodborne illness cases are tracked back to raw produce, an increase spurred by consumers’ efforts to eat more healthily as well as various health departments’ efforts to track sources more diligently.“Produce has risen to the top of the list when it comes to foodborne outbreaks in the U.S.,” says Doyle. “More people are eating produce, and there’s a bit of concern over the safety of produce in America. When you include nuts, fruits and vegetables in the produce category, it’s the leading vehicle (for foodborne illness) over the past four or five years.”Foodborne illness cases have been linked to some of the following produce items in the last decade:
- Romaine lettuce
- Raw spinach
- Carrot juice
- A variety of nuts
- Caramel apples
- Jalapeno peppers
- Prepackaged bagged salads
Beginning in April 2016, CRF Frozen Foods recalled 11 frozen vegetable products because of potential Listeria contamination, which quickly spread to include over 350 products — from blueberries to broccoli — sold under 42 different brands, as well as 100 prepared food products that used some of the recalled produce as ingredients. The FDA reports that a total of nine people were hospitalized and three died as a result of the contaminated food. The National Frozen Food Corp. also experienced a similar recall around this time, which involved its frozen peas and mixed vegetables.
Most Costly Food Recalls
It’s been said that the average company cost of a food recall is $10 million, but when an organization faces a widespread food safety issue that becomes highly publicized, total expenses have been known to reach billions of dollars in damage and recovery. Sometimes the financial impacts are even felt industry-wide. Here’s a look at some of the most costly food recalls in recent years.
- An E. coli outbreak caused by romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ, resulted in more than 150 people becoming sick since April of this year. It also incurred huge losses for growers, a drop in sales for retailers and disrupted supply chains as restaurants scrambled to find alternatives. “During the week of April 14 (the week the news broke), romaine dollar sales fell 20%, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits: iceberg lettuce dollar sales were down 19%; red leaf lettuce dollar sales fell 16%; and endive dollar sales dipped 17%,” according to a Nielsen report on National Salad Month. The Wall Street Journal reported that in May, romaine sales fell nearly 45%, iceberg fell 22% and red leaf fell 17%. Prices for whole heads of romaine lettuce were down 60%.
- A company known for its nut-free peanut butter substitute and granola products was the source of a multistate E. coli bacteria outbreak in early 2017. At least 29 individuals became ill in 12 states. Nine of them developed kidney failure. The products had been distributed to childcare centers and schools in multiple states. Some products were even still available for sale online after the initial recall was publicized. The company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May 2017.
- One of the nation’s leading ice cream makers suffered major revenue dips in response to two Listeria-related recalls in 2015 and 2016. Production was halted after 10 consumers in four states were hospitalized. The company recalled eight million gallons of ice cream and was forced to lay off 1,450 employees, or more than a third of its workforce (and furlough another 1,400). As of last year, it was estimated to have a 2.8 percent share of the U.S. ice cream production market, less than half of its 6.4 percent share in 2014, the year before the Listeria outbreak.
- A major salad supplier faced two monumental recalls in the last two years: one in 2015 as a result of positive test results for Salmonella, affecting bagged salads distributed in 13 states; and another in 2016 involving a deadly Listeria outbreak that caused the company to shut down its salad processing facility for almost four months. The first recall ended up costing the company $10.8 million, while the second reached $25.5 million.
- A privately held peanut processor in Georgia underwent a massive salmonella outbreak in 2009 that spurred a wave of foodborne illness, resulting in nine deaths and hundreds of sickened consumers. More than 3,913 different products from roughly 361 different companies had to be recalled, and industry-wide peanut butter sales declined by 25%. Ultimately, the peanut processor had to declare bankruptcy and went out of business. A former top executive was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the outbreak, and the Georgia Peanut Commission estimated that America’s peanut producers would lose about $1 billion between sales and lost production as a result of the recall.
Top Reasons for Food Recalls
Many food recalls come as a nasty surprise to the brands that are affected. Food ingredients that make up the products sold by major food processors, restaurants and grocers can cause a severe ripple effect downstream in the food supply chain. A summary published by Food Safety Magazine cited the following top causes of food recalls in the U.S. and Canada in 2017:
- Undeclared allergens: 218 food recalls, with the biggest offenders including:
- Listeria contamination: 108 recalls, mostly affecting various types of cheese, including an outbreak that claimed two lives. Listeria-related recalls impacted companies including:
- Pinnacle Foods
- Aunt Jemima
- Hungry Man
- Salmonella contamination: 24 recalls, including candy, potato chips, salami and cappuccino mix. Salmonella-related recalls affected companies including:
- Hostess’s Twinkies brand
- Hunt’s (a subsidiary of ConAgra Brands)
- Frito Lay
- E. coli contamination: 14 recalls, mostly linked to beef products, including a recall of nearly 80,000 pounds of boneless beef products produced by Waco, TX-based H & B Packing Company.
- Foreign matter: 42 recalls from the presence of materials such as:
- Antibiotic nitrofurazone
- Meat casing
- A quaternary ammonium compound
If there’s one thing that the above numbers prove, it’s that no company is completely safe from undergoing a food recall. The risks are high, the costs are staggering and the danger is real. The best protection for your company is a proactive mindset and a robust prevention plan that includes the ability to gain visibility into the risk you are experiencing every day.
For expert tips and information on implementing an FSMA-compliant food safety plan and protecting your brand from the hazards of a food recall, access your free Food Recall Prevention Kit now.