How Do You Recall Tainted Food?

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Pistachio nuts from a California grower and processor were recalled in March 2009 due to possible salmonella contamination

You may want to take care before eating Campbell's SpaghettiOs with meatballs or Marie Callender's Cheesy Chicken and Rice frozen meals. Keep your eye out when feeding your cat Iams ProActive Health cat food. And if you're allergic to nuts, stay away from Kroger brand chocolate ice cream. All of these items are currently the subjects of product recalls. And while the products have been recalled for reasons of varying urgency (for example, SpaghettiOs with meatballs may not be properly sterilized while the Iams cat food suffers only from a nutritionally low level of vitamin B), they all have one thing in common: they're voluntary recalls. Surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't actually have the power to recall food.

Food recalls can happen in a variety of ways, depending on the severity of the defect and how it was discovered. Campbell Soup's June 17 recall of SpaghettiOs with meatballs resulted from an in-house plant inspection. One of the cookers (not the one that cooks the meatballs but rather the one that sterilizes the finished product) wasn't working properly. "We were fairly certain that it had happened very recently, but we couldn't be sure," explains Anthony Sanzio, Campbell's director of corporate communications, "so we recalled the entire product, two years' of production back to 2008." No illnesses have been reported and Campbell has received no customer complaints, but if you have a can of SpaghettiOs with meatballs, Campbell wants it back. "No one wants to do a recall of course, but when you think your product might be unsafe, ultimately you just have to do it," says Sanzio.

While Campbell recalled its food to avoid an illness outbreak, many high-profile recalls — especially those involving fresh produce — happen after people have already become sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria. When the CDC gathers enough information to link an outbreak to a food product (for example, if everyone sickened by a particular strain of salmonella ate the same store-bought product), it contacts the Department of Agriculture (USDA) if it's meat or poultry or the FDA if it's anything else. The organization then tries to find the source of the problem by inspecting farms, plants and packaging centers. "Ideally we try to say, 'This is the cause, and this is what happened," explains Roberta Wagner, acting deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "That's of course a very clean scenario. It doesn't always happen like that."

Oftentimes, especially in the case of fresh produce, it's hard to pinpoint the source of an outbreak. Sometimes it's near impossible to find out where an individual tomato came from. "Bagged leafy greens are easy to trace back to a processor," says Wagner, "but tomatoes and other fruits are often sorted according to size, so there's a lot of co-mingling going on."

Once the tainted product is identified, through inspection or otherwise, it's up to the manufacturer to recall it. The FDA cannot force companies to recall their food products (with the exception of infant formula, which was the subject of special legislation in the 1980s). "In many cases they do agree [to a recall]," says Cecilia Wolyniak, the FDA's consumer-safety officer. "But there are some cases where they won't and then we do what's called an FDA requested recall, where we send them a notification and say we expect them to take action." If that doesn't work, the FDA will seize the product itself.

"A good example of that is the PCA situation," Wolyniak says, referring to the 2009 recall of more than 1,800 products that contained peanuts and peanut paste made by the Peanut Corporation of America. Nine people died and an estimated 22,000 people were made ill after a salmonella outbreak in the company's processing facilities, leading to one of the largest food recalls in recent memory. Once the outbreak was discovered, most companies that used PCA as their peanut supplier recalled their products. "But one company refused to recall," says Wolyniak of Westco Fruit and Nuts Inc., which used PCA peanuts in its trail mix. "We tried everything but they wouldn't issue a recall," she says. Eventually, the FDA seized what little tainted trail mix the company had left in its warehouses. But it couldn't get back the stuff that had already been shipped to stores and sold to consumers.

"The lack of mandatory recall always surprises people," says Mike Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. "It'd help if we had the authority to back [our recall requests] up." The FDA is currently seeking that authority and increased manpower; right now the organization has only about 450 people authorized to do on-site inspections of the over 156,000 FDA-regulated firms. At present, the FDA tries to inspect food facilities once a year if they make easily contaminated products like seafood and every few years if they don't. Congress has been trying to overhaul the food-safety system since last June — to increase the FDA's power and require more frequent inspections — but efforts have been stymied by the health care and energy reform debates. Theoretically, the Senate should vote on a bill this year.

According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, food-borne illnesses in the U.S. cause more than 5,000 deaths each year. While some recalls go smoothly (like Campbell's), others get botched by uncooperative companies fearful of the bad publicity that inevitably surrounds a recall. So what happens to a food item once it's recalled? It's usually sent back to the manufacturer and then disposed of while a representative from the FDA or the USDA watches. Or asks to watch. Or sometimes just receives paperwork about it. With only so many inspectors available, sometimes, there's just not enough time to send someone to watch 15 million pounds of SpaghettiOs get destroyed.