Food recalls can be scary; no one wants to be the bad mom who bought the poisoned food. The good news is that you – and me – are not. Although scary, Food Recalls are necessary to prevent more significant health issues, and as consumers, it is impossible to know when we buy the product.
It may seem that there are a lot of food recalls, but when you take a closer look, Canada and the USA are not doing that bad compared with the rest of the world.
There are three classifications of food recalls. From the Food Safety Program, Manitoba government,
"Class I: a situation where serious adverse health consequences or death may result if the product is consumed (ex: presence of undeclared allergens). Class II: a situation where a health hazard possibly exists but the probability is remote (ex: presence of pathogenic bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes in a ready-to-eat product). Class III: a situation where the consumption of the product is not likely to cause any health problems (ex: severe quality issues of a product)."
Food Recalls by the numbers
In Canada, between 2019-2020 have been 135 recalls due to allergen and only 71 due to microbiological contamination. In 2019 in the USA, there were 126 undeclared allergens present in processed foods. Undeclared allergens qualify as Class I recall. In 2020, it represented 48% of recalls in the USA. The main ingredients not mentioned on the labels were milk (83 recalls), soy (28), nuts (25) and eggs (15).
“Having accurate allergen information is critical to the estimated 32 million people in the United States who suffer from food allergies. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), each year over 200,000 Americans require emergency medical care due to allergic reactions caused by food. Within the last decade, the prevalence of reported food allergies has significantly increased, with an estimated 8% of children and 11% of adults impacted by food allergies,” explains an article on the Food Industry Association’s website.
The second main reason for food recalls is due to the presence of foreign materials. In Canada, between 2019-2020, there were 38 recalls, and in the USA, in 2019, there were 48, becoming the leading cause for recalls.
What does foreign material mean? Exactly what you are thinking. These are traces of materials that don’t belong in the food purchased—for example, metal, plastic, lead, meat casing, styrofoam, aluminum, and more. This type of recall is more common in processed foods, as the more automatization the production has, the higher the chances of this happening.
Unfortunately, raw food counts for 33% of foodborne illness cases in the USA. The vast majority is light processed, such as ready-to-eat salads and frozen fruits. Other cases of raw contamination, such as lettuce with e.coli from Salinas, CA, were caused by cross-contamination. The same e.coli strain “was detected in a fecal--soil composite sample taken from a cattle grate on public land less than two miles upslope from a produce farm with multiple fields tied to the outbreaks by the traceback investigations” source.
What Can Consumers Do?
The best option we have as consumers is to practice food hygiene at home. Cook the food to the right temperature to kill some pathogens, wash your utensils and avoid cross-contamination.
When you have a product that is being recalled, the first thing to do is compare the label information with the information provided in the recall announcement. If the product matches the recall, do not donate or feed animals. Follow the instructions provided for its disposal.
If the recall is due to allergens and no one in your family is allergic to it, it may still be safe to consume the product, although it is at your discretion.
Follow the disposal instructions if the recall is regarding anything else, microbiological contamination or foreign agents.
Here are a couple of “best practices” when it comes to contaminated food disposal:
Throw out the food, wrap it in multiple layers of plastic to avoid being eaten by animals
Return the product to the store where you bought it.
Wash the container, counters, and fridge thoroughly to avoid cross-contamination
Wash your hands
One last word on microbiological contamination, foodborne pathogens, such as e.coli and Listeria, don’t produce any smell and are not visible to the naked eye. They are easily transmitted from one contaminated material to another. Don’t take any risks. Just dispose of the food.
Not All Bacteria Are Bad
Our body, more specifically our gut, needs bacteria. Actually, we need an army of 100 trillion bacteria for our digestive system to function properly. However, those are not only good bacteria. Our gut microbiota has a perfect balance of good and bad bacteria living in harmony.
“Every person’s gut flora is unique, but most of us have at least 700 species of bacteria living in our intestines at any one time. Around 85% of normal gut flora is made up of beneficial bacteria, i.e., species we want to have around because they perform useful actions like synthesizing vitamins or breaking down our food to release energy. The other 15%, however, is made up of potentially unfavourable pathogenic bacteria, i.e., those that can undermine health if they get out of hand.” Source
Same as in healthy soil, as long as good bacteria outnumber the bad ones, it is not a problem. It’s part of the necessary biodiversity for a healthy soil or a healthy garden. That biodiversity is unique to each person. Likewise, the microorganism in the soil is different depending on the location, type of soil and soil management practices.
The soil gut connection has been studied for many years. Both environments share the same number of active microorganisms. Researchers believe that both microbe communities evolved in tandem. “Our health is not only predicated on the activity of the microbes in our guts, but on the microbes we ingest both directly (from purposeful geophagy, or accidental dirt ingestion) and indirectly (in the form of plant crops) from the soil,” source.
Our soils are losing many microbes due to tillage, monocropping, pesticide, and other practices. To have a healthy gut microbiota, we need to feed it with food rich with good biology. These foods come from soil that is also rich with good biology.
Gut microbes protect us from pathogens by regulating the immune system. So, next time select food grown in healthy soil, and if you have the opportunity to buy directly from the farmer, do it. Nothing is better than knowing how our food is grown. Or, plant your own vegetables. What would be better than having a salad that comes directly from your garden, knowing that there is (almost) no risk of contamination.