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Prevalence of Food Recalls

According to the government website www.recalls.gov/food, in the United States food recalls occur almost consistently at three times a week.  Three times a week!  This is of course on the national level, but still, three times a week is a lot.  Food recalls and safety alerts happen almost like clockwork.  In fact, they happen so often it’s almost like the idea that food safety exists is a joke. 

Right now the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has jurisdiction to federally demand that food or pet food be recalled in order to protect consumers.  Food recalls happen so frequently that one must wonder why the USDA doesn’t do just a tad bit more to protect consumers.  While there aren’t that many, food recall related deaths do occur. 

Consumers can do many things to protect themselves, but it is impossible to completely avoid all processed and fresh food altogether in this country.  While the news media has the ability to report on massive recalls, it cannot cover all the recalls happening and often does not cover any recalls unless people are getting sick from it.  So what can the average consumer do to protect themselves besides starvation?

The USDA has set up an e-mail subscription system that can allow people to receive all the food recalls and safety alerts electronically.  This would work well if it weren’t for the fact that at some point you might confuse the USDA with spam because they are likely to send so many recalls and alerts each week. 

One possibility would be to simply look at their website under food, poultry, eggs, and meat recalls as often as you would like to.  When looking for recall information, it might be useful to understand some basic USDA definitions.

• A Class I recall is defined as “a situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.
• A Class II recall is defined as “a situation in which use of or exposure to a violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote.
• A Class III recall is defined as “a situation in which the use of or exposure to a violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences.”  This kind of recall also includes improper labeling.
• Market withdrawal is defined as the result of a minor violation in which a product is removed from the market or corrected.
• Medical device safety alert is issued “in situations where a medical device may present an unreasonable risk of substantial harm.”  Sometimes these alerts may be considered recalls as well.

Something important for every consumer to know is that the USDA cannot force a product off the shelves unless they have a court order.  If then the manufacturer still does not want to comply, the USDA can send in the troops to remove the products from the stores and/or stop production.  In fact, the main reason a product gets recalled is because the manufacturer or distributor does not want to lose consumer business.  So they voluntarily recall items and may or may not issue a press release.  Sometimes when a manufacturer does not want to recall an item due to feared loss of revenue, the USDA can get a court order if there is substantial evidence supporting the need for the product removal.  This can take time, however.

So, what happens if you find out something is wrong with what you are eating?  The USDA accepts reports through mail, e-mail, and over the phone as needed regarding complaints about a product.  E-mail is definitely the most popular these days for sending in complaints, however, the USDA often must investigate through further means if the complaint is serious enough and could potentially affect a huge or vulnerable population.  Vulnerable populations obviously include infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly.  One must follow the proper guidelines when submitting a complaint.  For example, you cannot just send a general e-mail to the federal government.  You have to go through the proper channels.  These channels include finding out which district you live in and sending it to state office from there.

Food recalls have been going on for a long time now so it’s nothing to be afraid of, yet definitely something to think about.  This is especially true if you’re trying to avoid food poisoning.  One thing you can do is avoid high risk foods that have been consistently recalled in the past.  For example, avoiding meat, poultry, and eggs is definitely a way to avoid salmonella while at the same time becoming a vegetarian.  But in the end, it’s almost impossible to avoid having consumed something that has or will be recalled in a lifetime. 
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