How to Keep Recalled Foods off Store Shelves and Your Shelves

food recallIt’s a problem well-known by food safety experts but not common knowledge among other consumers: According to the Chicago Tribune, food recalls “routinely fail to recover all of the products they seek and, according to experts, sometimes even leave tainted food in stores, putting consumers at risk of becoming ill from potentially deadly food-borne pathogens.”


The article gives statistics to back up its claim.  In 2009, for example, of 59 USDA recalls in which the amount of recalled food sought and the amount actually recovered as known, only 3 recovered all of the product identified as possibly contaminated.  Here’s another example from the same year: out of 460,000 lbs. of ground beef recalled by a Denver processor, only 119,000 were actually recovered.


It would be ideal if potentially unsafe edibles, once identified as such, were promptly removed from the food supply.  Unfortunately, there are still many changes needed to make that happen.  However, federal agencies, those in the business of handling food all along the food chain, and consumers themselves can take actions to reduce the risk of consuming recalled foods.


Why doesn’t the recall system work better?


- American food is largely produced by huge manufacturers and processors and travels far from its point of origin.  The result is that, when the contamination occurs, often it quickly spreads to many areas of the country and involves massive amounts of recalled product.


- Federal agencies are often accused of not acting quickly enough to stop improper practices of some businesses producing and handling foods. Speedier response could result in the issuing of recalls before contaminated foods cause widespread illness, and there are huge amounts of tainted food to recover.   However, as of this writing, the FDA (the agency responsible for keeping most of the U.S. food supply safe) does not have the power to order mandatory recalls when it does find a problem. 


- The federal government publishes notices about recalls, but then, says the Chicago Tribune, it depends upon the news media, manufacturers, and retailers to spread the word.”  Major recalls such as the recent egg disaster, get enough publicity to reach almost everyone.  However, others are not so well-publicized.


- Some food manufacturers and processors detect problems long before they take action to notify the public.  Some operate in direct violation of federal safety regulations.


- Because recalls are announced as voluntary, some stores (usually smaller ones) assume that they have a choice in the matter and leave recalled products on the shelves.  


- Recalled products may accidentally get left on shelves even when stores are trying to remove all of them.


- Whether a consumer buys a recalled product, either before or after it is recalled, once it’s  in the home, it may get eaten if customers don’t hear about the recall. Many recalls are because a product contains a common allergen not listed on the label. These recalls are generally not well publicized. If the item winds up being consumed by someone allergic to the undisclosed item, the result can be a medical emergency.


- Most surprising of all, some consumers hear about recalls and ignore them.  According to a 2009 study at Rutgers University recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune, “12% of U.S. consumers actually ate food that they knew had been the subject of a recall.”


What changes would better protect consumers? 


- The movement encouraging consumers to buy food that’s locally produced is one attempt to make food safer as well as more nutritious.  Whether this philosophy will “catch on” enough to help curtail massive recalls is anyone’s guess.


- The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which has already passed the House and may soon be heard by the Senate, is a bill to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to the safety of the food supply.  This bill would allow the FDA to have more inspectors and more resources for detecting food safety problems before huge quantities of potentially dangerous food becomes available for retail sale.   It would increase the power of the FDA over food processors in the country. Consumers may want to learn more about it and perhaps urge their senators to support it. 


- Supermarkets that issue discount cards could use the information that they have about consumer purchases to notify customers who have purchased a recalled item.  Some stores do this already.  But when a recall involves a large number of customers, some feel it’s more than they can handle.


- Grocery stores large and small could be urged or even required by local governing bodies to conspicuously post notices of recalls that affect their area.


- Consumers, particularly those who are preparing food for young children, the elderly, and others with delicate immune systems, should make it a habit to follow the local news since recalls involving potentially contaminated products are likely to be broadcast or written about.


- Consumers with special concerns about their own health or the health of the people they cook for can registered on government sites to receive notices of new recalls.  This information can save a life since recalls of products with undisclosed ingredients are rarely publicized.  However, unidentified allergens not listed as part of the ingredients can be deadly for a highly allergic person. To subscribe to FDA email updates on recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts, go to


To see a list of current recalls and alerts, go to:


- Recalls are sometimes expanded after the initial announcement. Soon after a recall, cautious consumers might choose to avoid purchasing an edible item with a code number just recently before or past the recalled items of a particular brand.  Also, it’s possible that the recall could expand to additional brands, so some consumers may choose to temporarily stop purchasing the item altogether until the limits of the recall become clear.


- Finally, consumers should return to the store any recalled item in their pantry, fridge, or freezer. If a federal agency happens to be keeping track of the recovery process on that particular item, recalled food that is simply discarded by individuals doesn’t get counted as recovered in government statistics. (Perhaps that’s why the statistics quoted early in this article are so dismal.) Furthermore, consumers collect no refund on food thrown into the garbage. 


To access more information about recalls on ShelfLifeAdvice, click here:





Chicago Tribune  “Despite recalls, tainted food sometimes on shelves”  “New FDA modernization bill hopes to prevent food recalls”




Chicago Tribune  “Despite recalls, tainted food sometimes on shelves”


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