The year 2015 was the first year that Food Safety Magazine embarked on a seemingly impossible feat—to track every single food product recall announced in the U.S. and Canada. While we do not claim to have amassed an all-encompassing list, we have tallied what was publicly reported by three different agencies—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Last year had its fair share of significant food recalls—some even justifying breaking new headlines in the mainstream media. From undeclared allergens and misbranded products to microbiological contamination, it is clear that there is room for improvement.
A total of 626 food recalls were tabulated for all of 2015. If there’s anything to be learned from last year’s food recalls it’s this: Food allergens dominate. And it’s a real problem, not only for the 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies but also for the food manufacturers that produce the foods we eat. This is made clear by the sheer number of recalls issued last year due to common, repeat allergens:
Milk/dairy - 82
Peanuts - 49
Eggs - 42
Wheat/gluten - 34
Other allergens that were linked to food recalls included soy, sulfites and various types of tree nuts—almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews and pistachios.
Big Names Issue Recalls
In April, Cargill Meat Solutions recalled 8,294 pounds of ground beef patties that may have contained foreign matter contamination in the form of blue string. During routine cleaning, it was discovered that a cotton/poly blend of blue string was stuck in one of the production machines. Cargill believed that some of the string may have ended up in the final product, all of which had already been distributed to warehouse locations in Connecticut and Maryland.
Last June, Nestlé’s India division announced that the company would destroy $50 million worth of Maggi noodles. At the time, tests proved that noodle samples contained alarmingly high levels of lead, not to mention monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG)—an ingredient not listed on the packaging. A popular snack among India’s young population, Maggi noodles were banned by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India due to the high presence of lead. Nestlé’s global chief executive Paul Bulcke said at the time of the recall that despite test results, he still believed that Maggi noodles’ lead levels were within India’s legal limits. He also maintained that MSG is naturally produced during the making of the noodles and that Nestlé did not intentionally add the ingredient. The ban on Maggi noodles was lifted in November 2015.[3, 4]
On July 2, 2015, rumors began to swirl that Kraft Foods Group and H.J. Heinz Company had finalized a merger agreement, forming the Kraft Heinz Company. The joining of two of the largest food companies in the U.S. meant combined annual revenues of almost $30 billion. Just 3 weeks after the merger went public, the recalls starting rolling in.
In July, Kraft Canada Inc. issued a recall of its Bull’s-Eye-brand Hot Southern Cajun Barbecue Sauce because it contained mustard, an ingredient not declared on the label.
Also in July, Kraft Heinz recalled some Kraft Singles individually wrapped slices of cheese—a staple in many American households. The recall was prompted after it was determined that a thin strip of packaging film might remain adhered to the food after the wrapper had been removed, causing a choking hazard.
In August, Kraft Heinz then recalled over two million pounds of Oscar Mayer-brand turkey bacon because it might spoil before the displayed “Best When Used By” date.
Also in August, General Mills announced the recall of some frozen Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans produced in March 2014. One completed package had tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, although no illnesses had been reported in relation to the recalled product.
Subsequently, General Mills recalled two of the most popular cereals on American store shelves—original Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. Limited amounts of these breakfast foods contained wheat, an ingredient not listed on the labels. Boxes were inaccurately labeled as “gluten-free.”
Another food company issued numerous recalls in August. Bimbo Bakeries USA voluntarily removed a number of popular bread brands from store shelves, including Sara Lee, Kroger, Walmart’s Great Value label and Nature’s Harvest. These breads may have been contaminated with foreign material—fragments of glass caused by a broken light bulb at one of Bimbo’s bakeries.
In October, Hormel Foods recalled some jars of Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread because they may have contained matter contamination. Metal shavings were discovered by an in-line magnet during routine equipment cleaning. The peanut butter was sent to distribution centers that deliver to Publix, Target and Walmart stores primarily in the Southeast and along the East Coast.
In mid-November, Pine Bluff, AR-based Tyson Foods, Inc. recalled over 52,000 pounds of the brand’s Any’tizers frozen snacks. The fully cooked buffalo-style chicken wing products may have been adulterated, resulting in what was described as an “off odor.” The recall was prompted after consumer complaints regarding the foul odor and reports of mild illness. According to a statement issued by Tyson, the product did not meet the company’s quality standards. The products had been distributed and shipped to retail stores nationwide prior to the recall announcement.[12, 13]
Mars Chocolate North America issued an allergy alert in December because 24-oz. bags of DOVE Chocolate Assortment Snowflakes also contained some Snickers, Milky Way and Twix products, a health risk for those who are allergic to peanuts, wheat or eggs.
Widespread Recalls of 2015
The first half of 2015 saw at least 16 recalls of cumin and cumin powder products due to the presence of undeclared peanuts and almonds. Part of the reason this recall was so widespread is because the cumin in question was an ingredient in many different foods—spice mixes and kits, soups, chilies, meats and poultry products.
Throughout 2015, at least seven apple recalls were issued. All but one was due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Probably the biggest company involved was Del Monte Fresh Produce North America, which issued a recall of 695 boxes and 67 clear plastic bags of Granny Smith green apples that had been distributed to Coremark and 7-Eleven stores in the Mountain States region. The presence of Listeria was discovered when a customer performed microbial testing on the raw apples they received.
In May, possibly the first evidence of Clostridium botulinum in canned seafood was made public when Tavora Holding Company recalled Vasco Da Gama-brand canned seafood products including mussels, squid, sardines, mackerel and octopus. At the time, the recall was blamed on an unnamed pathogen. Fast-forward 5 months and at least 14 canned seafood products were recalled between October 9 and November 10. This onslaught of recalls primarily included cans of albacore tuna and salmon.
In June, Niagara Bottling LLC recalled some popular generic store brands of bottled water because Escherichia colimay have been present due to exposure to human or animal waste at two Pennsylvania plants. The brands affected—Acadia, Acme, Big Y, Best Yet, 7-Eleven, Niagara, Nature’s Place, Pricerite, Superchill, Morning Fresh, Shaws, ShopRite, Western Beef Blue and Wegmans—may have been contaminated, since Niagara’s spring water source did not notify the company in a timely manner regarding the presence of pathogens.
Can We Put a Stop to Food Recalls?
In November, FSIS unveiled plans to counteract what they determined to be an increase in the number of undeclared allergen recalls in recent years. The relatively new guidelines specifically target allergen recalls linked to meat, poultry and processed egg products. The guidance covers prevention and control measures of potentially allergenic ingredients, packaging, labeling, storage, checklists and allergen training, among others. The efforts, according to USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza, are aimed at keeping consumers safe and helping companies to “avoid preventable, costly recalls.” These new guidelines are just one part of FSIS’ comprehensive efforts to reduce the number of allergen-related recalls.
Also in November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Vital Signs report revealed data on the prevalence of multistate foodborne outbreaks—particularly those caused by Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. To combat these types of outbreaks and food recalls from occurring, “Top-notch epidemiology and new gene sequencing tools are helping us quickly track down the source of foodborne outbreaks—and, together with our national partners, we are working with the food industry to prevent them from happening in the first place,” says Tom Frieden, CDC director. The Vital Signs report recommends that local, state and national health agencies work closely with the food industry to understand how their foods are produced and distributed to speed multistate outbreak investigations. These investigations can reveal fixable problems that resulted in food becoming contaminated and lessons learned that can help strengthen food safety.
There are many areas that, when improved upon, can make our food supply even safer. Modern, up-to-date systems and technology, easily traceable food supply chains, accurate labeling and a better overall focus on food safety in general will put us ahead of the game.