COLUMBUS—A study of food safety and recalls released in January by U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that since 2013, all food recalls increased by ten percent overall.

And the most dangerous types of recalls for meat and poultry, Class I, increased by 83 percent from 2013-2018.

  • Only some food recalls are due to illness-causing bacteria
  • The Food Safety Modernization Act and Food Safety Plans put more food safety responsibility on food producers
  • Regulatory standards and consumer awareness go a long way to reducing risks of contracting a foodborne illness

Columbus-based Weiland’s grocery owner Jennifer Williams says that food safety is her highest priority.

“It’s obviously critical,” she said. “It’s our reputation, but it’s more than our reputation. It’s about keeping people safe.”

Williams says that ensuring safe food is in her store involves selecting reliable food sources.

“We have just a lot of focus on where the food comes from,” said Williams. “Our producers and suppliers are held to very high standards. It’s just critical. It goes without saying. I think the recent scares with the lettuce and other vegetables have really brought that issue home to people.”

Following rigorous food handling protocols including ServSafe training for employees is also important.

“I would break it down into fresh produce, fresh seafood and meat,” said Williams, a fourth-generation grocer. “For one, we have everything from three-compartment sinks to sanitizers, to washed utensils. Everybody wears gloves even if we don’t have to, because of the perception of keeping people safe.”

But sometimes, contaminated food gets through the supply chain and on the shelves, and when a potential contaminant is discovered, a recall is issued.

Dr. Sanja Ilic, The Ohio State University assistant professor and state food safety specialist, says recalls are for the public benefit.

“A recall is always part of a food safety plan to prevent people from getting sick or injured,” she said.

Only some recalls are due to an outbreak of illness.

Data does show that recalls for contamination from illness-causing bacteria are a large percentage, but some are issued for reasons like allergens that are not listed, or physical non-food items found in foods.

“That’s one of the misconceptions that really has to be addressed,” said Ilic. “Because every day we see recalls and we think ‘oh my good, the food is making me sick’, but that is not always the case. This only means that there was some sort of failure that could lead to some sort of exposure.”

In 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, laws designed to increase responsibility on food producers for food safety.

Food safety preventive controls known as Food Safety Plans have been phased into policy over the past few years and cover many, but not all food producers.

Matt Fout, of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s produce safety division, says that those policies have given us more tools to keep people informed about food safety issues.

“More information, more investigative techniques that we are able to utilize and so that we are able to find outbreaks more so than what we have in previous years,” said Fout, who is the produce safety supervisor.

Fout says in the case of the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreaks that sickened hundreds, investigations point to contamination from animal waste through water from nearby farms.

The technology, testing and inspection, which are now standard under FSMA, go a long way to reducing risk.

“We’re never going to be able to eliminate food-borne illness, but the reduction of it is going to be crucial from a regulatory standpoint, but also from a manufacturers standpoint,” said Fout.

It’s crucial because data does show more about how many pathogens and contaminants get into the food supply and result in recalls.

In 2017, the CDC reports that almost 25,000 people experienced foodborne illness related to contamination, nearly 6,000 were hospitalized and 122 deaths occurred.

Ilic says that’s why awareness is key for consumers.

“It’s important that the consumer is informed and is handling the food and understanding the risk of consumptions of different foods,” she said.