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How Samsung's recall compares to the biggest ever

This Oct. 9, 2016 photo shows a damaged Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on a table in Richmond, Va., after it caught fire earlier in the day.
Shawn L. Minter | AP
This Oct. 9, 2016 photo shows a damaged Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on a table in Richmond, Va., after it caught fire earlier in the day.

Between Samsung phones, Chipotle burritos and Volkswagen diesel engines, it seems like it's been the year of recalls. It begs the question: How big is the Samsung recall, compared with all the others?

The Korean electronics giant announced Tuesday that it will halt production of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone just weeks after U.S. regulators issued a recall of 1 million of the model for risk of catching fire. According to reports, the replacement models were also defective. Samsung's market capitalization shed about $18 billion following the news.

The fiasco will probably cost the company billions, but it's hard to compare against other major product recalls. Any kind of item can be recalled, and there's no single source for information on those recalls. Instead, there's a patchwork of at least seven government agencies, each of which is tasked with tracking recalls of a particular type of product.

That alphabet soup of government agencies — including the NHTSA, CPSC, FDA and EPA — are all linked at www.Recalls.gov, a supposedly one-stop shop for recall information that really just points the user back to each individual agency's website. Each agency has its own units for tracking recalls: pounds of meat, units of defective vending machine jewelry, or bags of glass-contaminated bread.

Here's a look at how each organization tracks its recalls, and the biggest ones on record.

143 million pounds of beef

The USDA keeps what is probably the most useful and organized recall data out of all the big regulators, including the danger level, reason for the recall, and number of pounds affected. The majority of recalls are for food-borne bacteria like e. coli and listeria.

The biggest USDA recall on record was the February 2008 recall of 143.4 million pounds of fresh and frozen beef products from Westland/Hallmark Meat, a California processor that had slaughtered unhealthy cattle that couldn't walk — a clear violation of meat-handling standards, because that's a possible symptom of mad cow disease and other illnesses.

Before the recall was announced, about 50 million pounds of the meat were distributed in school lunches and other federal programs (the company even won school "supplier of the year"). Even though the risk was considered small and some of the beef had already been consumed, two years worth of meat production was recalled, and the cost forced the company into bankruptcy.

Eight people sickened in listeria outbreak

The Obama administration once proposed creating a single agency tasked with food safety overall, but regulation is still split between the USDA's responsibilities and most other foods, which are handled by the FDA along with drugs and medical products.

An FDA spokesperson said the agency didn't have data organized in a way that would allow them to identify the largest recalls on record. Indeed, though the agency publishes the quantity recalled, there isn't much consistency in how information is recorded. A recall might involve "3,560 sandwiches," "10 pallets," "4 boxes," or "dozens," "units," "bags," "cases," "pieces of oysters," "pounds" or "jars" of recalled foods.

In our research, it appears that the single largest food recall for the FDA took place only a few months ago. Starting in 2013, nine people were sickened by listeria that appeared to come from fruits and vegetables produced by CRF Frozen Foods. The products had been shipped throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico as part of more than 40 brands at major retailers. The recall in early 2016 affected over 150 million pounds of products, according to FDA records, and millions more in products that were made with the fruits and vegetables.

The FDA's drug recall data is also hard to work with. Likely one of the most costly drug recalls in recent history was Merck's 2004 recall of Vioxx, an arthritis medicine worth billions of dollars in revenue each year. At the time of the recall, Vioxx was being used by millions of people, and potentially thousands of deaths were linked to the drug. The company lost potential revenue in the tens of billions and paid at least $6 billion in settlements.

Used cars of German carmaker Volkswagen stand on display at a Volkswagen car dealership on September 22, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Getty Images
Used cars of German carmaker Volkswagen stand on display at a Volkswagen car dealership on September 22, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

Volkswagen's $15 billion settlement

The EPA has jurisdiction over recalls involving pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides and vehicle emission testing. The agency doesn't seem to keep data on those recalls on its website and did not provide figures by press time. Nonetheless, it is likely that the biggest recall in the agency's history will be for Volkswagen, after that company was found to have cheated on emissions tests.

In a nearly $15 billion dollar settlement this year, Volkswagen agreed to give owners the option to sell back the car or have their vehicles modified, and must have an overall recall rate of at least 85 percent or pay additional fees. The company will also be required to fund projects to improve infrastructure and reduce emissions.

Faulty airbags

The biggest vehicle recall ever ordered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was for 32 million Fix-a-Flat tire inflators sold by Pennzoil-Quaker State, according to figures shared by an NHTSA spokesperson. The tires repaired with the kits were found to explode when exposed to extreme heat.

That's a large single recall, but reports indicate that it only cost the company about $25 million. If we take into account scope and cost, it's more fair to say that the actual largest vehicle recall in history is actually a combination of several recalls for Takata airbags beginning in 2014. The airbags could injure or kill occupants with their forceful deployment.

Takata airbags were included in more than 200 million vehicles from 14 different automakers and at least 10 deaths have been linked to the malfunction. About 50 million airbags have been recalled so far, but the total cost of the recall could cost Takata as much as $24 billion.

A deployed airbag is seen in a 2001 Honda Accord at the LKQ Pick Your Part salvage yard on May 22, 2015 in Medley, Florida. The largest automotive recall in history centers around the defective Takata Corp. air bags that are found in millions of vehicles that are manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. (
Getty Images
A deployed airbag is seen in a 2001 Honda Accord at the LKQ Pick Your Part salvage yard on May 22, 2015 in Medley, Florida. The largest automotive recall in history centers around the defective Takata Corp. air bags that are found in millions of vehicles that are manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. (

150 million pieces of lead-tainted jewelry

Consumer products is one category of recalls most people are familiar with. We generally hear about them described in terms of the number of units recalled. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the government agency tasked with regulating the safety of thousands of types of consumer products in the nation. It also handles recalls for those products: Everything from craft paint to office furniture.

According to figure provided by a CPSC spokesperson, the biggest recall was vending machine jewelry made by the Genuine Toy & Joy company in 2004. The jewelry was found to have an unsafe amount of lead and 150 million pieces were recalled. But no one was actually hurt by the lead-tainted jewelry.

Compare that to the recall with the next highest number of units, that of some 50 million Roman and Roll-Up Shades in 2010. At least one death by strangulation was linked to the shades, and at least 23 other injuries were reported.