While the American food safety system has significantly improved over the years, the increasing number of food recalls in 2018, from romaine lettuce to millions of pounds of beef, has put the spotlight back on the system that protects consumers from contaminated products.
According to a new report by a consumer watchdog group, food recalls are actually getting more common. In fact, the total number of food recalls in the US increased by 10 percent between 2013 and 2018.
Class I meat and poultry recalls, which are based on “reasonable probability” that contaminated food could cause health problems, also rose by 83 percent during this time period, the report says.
These figures are based on data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for meat and poultry. In combination with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which inspects products including processed foods, cheeses and produce.
“The food we nourish our bodies with shouldn’t pose a serious health risk. But systemic failures mean we’re often rolling the dice when we go grocery shopping or eat out,” said Adam Garber from the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Consumer Watchdog. “We can prevent serious health risks by using common sense protections from farm to fork.”
US PIRG Education Fund’s report ‘How Safe is Our Food?’ blames the flaws in our current food safety system for the increase in recalls. The report says despite improvements made since the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, serious gaps in the food safety system continue to exist.
Splitting the responsibility of food safety between the USDA and the FDA is one reason to blame for the issue. The report says this has caused “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources.”
“These recalls are a warning to everyone that something is rotten in our fields and slaughterhouses. Government agencies need to make sure that the food that reaches people’s mouths won’t make them sick,” said Viveth Karthikeyan, U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog Associate.
The report also called for the government to prohibit meat producers from selling contaminated products. Currently, it’s legal to sell meat that tests positive for dangerous strains of Salmonella.
In addition, the group’s findings suggest that water used for irrigation or watering of produce should be tested for hazardous pathogens. The report says this would help to prevent incidents such as the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak of 2018. As a case study demonstrated, this outbreak was likely caused by irrigation water polluted by fecal matter from a nearby cattle feedlot.
However, other experts say the increase of recalls is a sign that the US food system is working as it should. For example, advancements in food safety technology may be making it easier to detect contamination and foodborne illness.
“This is showing that the regulatory agencies are catching things,” said Jerold Mande, a professor of nutrition science at Tufts University in Massachusetts, to The Guardian.
Still, others say that the growing numbers could suggest that more companies are voluntarily recalling their products as soon as a potential public health threat surfaces, according to Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety.
“You want things recalled before anybody dies. You want things recalled, ideally, before anybody’s sick,” Hanson said to Time. “If companies think that the FDA and the USDA are looking over their shoulder, they’re going to do a better job.”
The report argues that the rise in recalls is primarily negative and that food safety defenses need an “across-the-board upgrade” to further protect consumers. Additionally, the report calls on the federal government to implement more stringent policies in order to stop food safety issues at the source.