From Ritz crackers to McDonald's salads, food recalls — and safety questions — are on the rise

Key Points
  • Both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled food at increasing rates from 2012 to 2015.
  • Public health officials use microbiological technology to identify the source of the an outbreak.
  • New food safety laws have given the FDA more power to enforce recalls.
A man shops for vegetables beside Romaine lettuce stocked and for sale at a supermarket in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. food safety regulators are recalling about twice as many products as a decade ago, pulling Ritz crackers, Goldfish and Swiss rolls off grocery shelves just last week, McDonald's salads about two weeks ago and Kellogg's Honey Smacks last month.

Approximately one in six Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as the number of recalls rises, so do questions about U.S. food safety.

Flower Foods, Mondelez and Pepperidge Farm — owned by Campbell Soup — recalled their crackers and other products last week after public health officials flagged a whey powder ingredient from a supplier that might be contaminated with salmonella.

The CDC blamed Kellogg's Honey Smacks for a salmonella outbreak that caused more than 100 people to become ill in 33 states in June. McDonald's was forced to pull salads from 3,000 restaurants in the Midwest after public health officials in Illinois and Iowa linked the restaurant chain to an outbreak of cyclosporiasis, which causes diarrhea and fever and has infected at least 286 people in 15 states so far, according to U.S. health officials.

While the rise in high-profile food recalls in recent years may be worrisome, it doesn't necessarily mean that U.S. food safety is declining, according to federal safety and foodborne illness specialists.

Companies have been getting more aggressive in issuing voluntary recalls while physicians and public health officials are getting better at reporting and tracing the origins of contamination, they said.

"We're better at figuring these outbreaks out," said Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food safety issues. "Public health has been cut back but not so much that it can't do good surveillance."

Recalls on the rise

Annual product recalls by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat producers, rose 83.4 percent from 2012 through 2017 while those issued by the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates everything else, jumped by 92.7 percent, according to an analysis of food and beverage recalls by industry consultant Stericycle Expert Solutions.

The Food Safety Modernization Act and new technology has "allowed for federal health officials and companies to discover problems sooner and take action more quickly to remove a product from the marketplace," FDA spokesman Peter Cassell told CNBC. "We continue to improve the safety of our food supply and consumers can rest assured that the FDA and CDC routinely monitor for outbreak signals across the country."

The FDA disputes Stericycle's data. In truth, the two count recalls differently with Stericycle looking at the number of products pulled and the FDA counting the number of incidents. The FDA would count the recent whey powder recall, for instance, as just one incident — even though several products were pulled off shelves.

Cassell also noted that the number of Class I recalls, which involve a probable or immediate public health threat, has not changed significantly from 2012 through 2017.

Food safety officials also point to increased product segmentation in the food sector as another reason for increasing food recalls. Small variations in these products mean that they travel through virtually the same supply chain, so an issue with one supplier can mean recalling multiple products.

Marler said the rise in food recalls is a cyclical thing, not an indication that food is more dangerous.

Slow response

The path to pulling contaminated food from shelves and menus can be long. In December, the Inspector General of Department of Health and Human Services, the investigative arm of the agency, found that food companies took 57 days on average to recall food after the agency was informed of potential risks in a study of 30 out of 1,557 food recalls from 2012 through 2015.

The IG's office also said the "FDA did not always have an efficient and effective food-recall process that ensured the safety of the nation's food supply."

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the samples studied by the IG's office included "very challenging" recalls, according to his response to the report. Gottlieb also said that recalls occur, on average, within four calendar days after the problem is discovered.

Public health officials try to detect foodborne diseases by studying geographic and temporal patterns in illnesses. Microbiological technology allows officials to obtain a DNA fingerprints of the pathogen, according to the CDC. Officials test food collected from the infected person's home, restaurants and manufacturing facilities for a DNA match to identify the source. Records and environmental assessments can also help officials pinpoint how the outbreak began, the CDC said.

The agency then contacts the company linked to the outbreak to request a voluntary recall, and the company is supposed to alert their grocers about the contamination. But not all retailers immediately pull the food off their shelves, as happened with Kellog's Honey Smacks. The FDA said the cereal was still being sold a month after it was supposed to be pulled.

Larger retailers like Walmart or Target can target a specific UPC barcode for a recall, but smaller retailers might not have that level of sophistication in place.

New food safety laws

An April report by the USDA also found that food recalls have increased over time. The agency attributed the rise to improvements in pathogen and risk technology, increased regulatory oversight and two major changes to food policy.

In 2006, Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which requires food labels to list ingredients that are considered allergens. In the first quarter of 2018, undeclared allergens accounted for 47.1 percent of FDA food recalls and 28.6 percent of USDA recalls.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, gave the FDA the power to mandate a recall when companies fail to pull their food products voluntarily. The agency first exercised this ability in April to recall herbal supplements that were tainted with salmonella.

The agency prefers to use voluntary recalls because they avoid a court battle, which could take years and keep hazardous products on shelves.

The law also expanded the agency's ability to enforce preventative measures like requiring companies to have recall plans in place to speed response times.