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Food recalls decline in 2021, but that doesn’t mean food is safer

Leading causes of recalls: undeclared allergens, contamination, pieces of plastic or metal
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PHILADELPHIA — Significantly fewer foods and beverages were recalled in 2021 than in 2020. But fewer recalls doesn’t necessarily mean food was safer last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported 270 food and beverage recalls in 2021, a 27% decrease from 2020. Undeclared allergens, pathogen contamination and foreign material contamination were the most common reasons for recalls, according to a new analysis by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. While these leading causes of food recalls have stayed consistent in recent years, our analysis offers insight into the reasons recalls declined in the second year of the pandemic and what the food industry and regulatory agencies can do better.

The FDA reported more food recalls in 2020 as the food industry scrambled to meet a much higher demand for foods that Americans could prepare easily at home, and processing facilities such as meat plants tried to stay afloat. Evidence suggests that efforts to meet demand led to more mistakes and more recalls in 2020. But in 2021, we saw the fewest recalls since 2017. 

“We shouldn’t assume that fewer recalls mean fewer food safety issues. It could mean that we just don’t know about them until it’s too late,” said Isabel Brown, consumer watchdog associate for U.S. PIRG Education Fund and author of the analysis. “Consumers shouldn’t have to decide between food shortages and food that’s available but less safe.”

Given the empty grocery shelves in parts of the country this January, it’s clear that the headaches of supply chain disruptions are not over.

The decline in recalls has a few likely causes: 

  • Fewer incidents reported by consumers and food producers, according to the USDA FSIS

  • Labor shortages for food testers, inspectors and other food safety positions could mean fewer problems get noticed and reported. Omicron, compared to other variants of the virus, has been especially tough on food inspectors.  

  • Many sick people, presumably including those with food-borne illnesses, have opted to stay home to avoid crowded hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients. That could skew outbreak numbers used to track pathogen contamination in food. 

  • Key components of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gradually going into effect since the legislation passed in 2011, which could be making food safer.

“Our food system should be a well-oiled machine. The recall process relies on consumers, producers and regulators to sound the alarm when something is wrong. When that doesn’t happen, unsafe food can slip through the cracks unnoticed,” Brown said.

As the food industry and all of its parts find a new normal, food producers, retailers and government agencies can continue to improve the safety of our food system. “When it comes to food safety, prevention is key,” said Brown.

U.S. PIRG supports the proposed revisions to the Food Safety Modernization Act which would take a more preventative approach to foodborne illnesses by strengthening agricultural water requirements. 

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