- Recalls of products across industries dropped for the first time since 2012, according to the first quarter 2019 Recall Index published by Stericycle Expert Solutions. The report found the decline occurred because of reduced oversight and safety inspections from the government shutdown earlier this year.
- FDA food recalls dropped to their lowest since 2015, declining 36.5% in the quarter to a total of 99. USDA food recalls declined 7.1% to 39 in the quarter, and total recalled pounds of food from the USDA decreased 91.6% to more than 1.4 million.
- "Fewer inspections mean more potentially dangerous products entered the market unnoticed during this period, which could also have an impact in the months ahead," Chris Harvey, director of recall solutions at Stericycle Expert Solutions, said in a release. "Having a recall plan in place could never be more important as we track the repercussions."
The impact of the longest government shutdown in history could be felt through the food industry long after it ended. When the shutdown occurred — lasting a record 35 days from December to January — farmers, producers and companies faced delays from the USDA and FDA in inspections, data and reports. Although some essential offices and programs within the agencies stayed open during the shutdown, many at the district level closed, which stopped some facility inspections.
This report claims uninspected facilities and products slipped by the government — and could result in larger recalls in the near future. Although food safety inspections continued under FDA and USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service during the shutdown, inspectors weren't being paid and the agencies weren't fully operational. About 40% of the FDA's staff was furloughed, Kaiser Health News reported. Although companies can claim the decline is good news, this report could cause fear in consumers who increasingly want more transparency about their food products and are seeing recalls in the news.
From recalling 11.8 million pounds of Tyson chicken that may contain metal to Ben & Jerry's pulling back flavors of its ice cream for undeclared allergens, recalls are happening across the industry. For the second quarter in a row, the report found that undeclared allergens were the biggest cause of FDA food recalls, representing 38.4% of the total and 98.1% of recalled food units. For USDA, foreign materials caused the most recalls by weight, accounting for 37.9% of the total pounds. Plastic was found in 40% of that. But nearly 18% of USDA recalls were due to no inspection.
Foodborne illnesses have also been a major source of recalls in recent years. Salmonella, cyclospora and campylobacter infections increased last year compared to previous years. Although the jump might be partly due to the more use of culture-independent diagnostic tests, the increasing number of foodborne illnesses could mean some contaminated products went undetected.
Companies and agencies are already working on food safety improvements that could help the problem. Public health officials are using advanced tools like whole genome sequencing to more quickly track foodborne illness cases. Tyson Ventures, the meat company's VC arm, invested in Clear Labs' automated food safety platform, which can detect salmonella and E. coli in 24 hours compared to three to five days. Such advances could also be a factor contributing to fewer recalls. Companies could be looking to invest in more food safety procedures as a precaution.
Food companies face consequences when big recalls hit the industry. They risk losing consumer trust and hurting bottom lines as products are pulled from shelves. If the FDA and USDA missed potential recalls and proper inspections during the shutdown, there could be more consequences to come. Companies could use this report as a warning to increase product inspections, and have a recall plan in place to ensure consumers of product safety.