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How a Food Recall Works

Posted in Food Safety,Our Blog,Outbreaks & Recalls on July 14, 2019

Recalls for flour.  Recalls for eggs, ground beef, and more.  Every time you turn around there is another recall.  But how exactly does a recall work?  What goes into a recall?  Some of the downline notifications are fairly standard, but each recall is as unique as the product and circumstance.

Recalls Happen for Many Reasons

Recalls can happen for many reasons.  Sometimes the manufacture discovers the problem and initiates a recall.  Sometimes a consumer or retailer complaint prompts the recall.  Unfortunately, a recall can also happen when traceback information from a foodborne illness investigation points back to a product that has made someone very sick – or worse.

Manufacturer Initiated Recall

A manufacture has many opportunities to initiate a recall before someone becomes sick or hurt.  This is the best-case scenario.  These companies do their best to follow established procedures in place to manufacture safe and good quality food that consumers can trust and enjoy.  But sometimes things go wrong.  Vigilant manufacturers will monitor their practices and recall product when they identify it as unsafe or not up to quality standards.

Sometimes a recall o when the manufacturer discovers a deviation from procedure that could impact the safety of the product.  This could be a deviation of processing temperature that could leave the food product vulnerable to spoilage or growth of harmful bacteria that could lead to serious or life-threatening foodborne illness.  This often occurs during a records review.  Optimally, this should occur before product is distributed to retailers and makes it to consumer hands.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and a recall is performed.

Other manufacturer recalls result from routine label verification processes.  This is a primary origin for undeclared allergen recalls.  These routine checks can identify whether a food product listed as a potential food allergen is present and not included on the product label.  In some cases, an allergy disclaimer is required.  These routine checks are in place for this very reason.

Sometimes a manufacturer receives a consumer complaint of an undeclared allergen or the presence of a foreign material.  Manufacturers should take these complaints seriously.  Often an investigation on which lot and production period this problem originated from and a recall is initiated to prevent subsequent problems.

A recalled ingredient from a supplier will also prompt a product recall.  Food manufacturers keep an eye on the products they use as ingredients.  When one of those ingredients is recalled (for whatever reason), their product is deemed unsafe and the manufacturer must take immediate action.

Traceback Investigation Prompted Recall

When two or more people become sick with a common pathogen, an investigation is launched to identify the source of the illness.  If two people have become sick, there is a possibility that others could be sick too.

Investigators start doing interviews with those who have fallen ill to find out what they have eaten in the weeks prior to becoming sick.  These answers are compared to results from a general population poll to determine any links between the sick patients and if there is a significant difference between those who are sick compared to the healthy individual poll.

Once a food type or types has been identified, investigators look into the actual products that the patient has consumed.  Where they shopped from, the brands they used, and if possible, take samples from any food product still left in the home.

As the investigation continues, samples are taken from other containers of food produced at that manufacturer and that lot to identify a range for the recall.  The manufacturer works with investigators to find the cause of the problem and what went wrong.  Hopefully the manufacturer uses this information to prevent it from happening in the future.  Meanwhile, a recall is initiated to prevent others from falling ill as well.

Recall Classifications

We’ve done a lot of talking about investigations and traceback and manufacturer responsibility.   But the heart of the recall process is the regulatory part.  Some aspects of a recall are very regulated.  For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lays out 3 classes for food recalls.  These are known as a Class I recall, a Class II recall, and a Class III recall.  How each recall is classified relates to the severity of the impact.

Class I recall: The FDA classifies a recall as a Class I recall in higher risk recalls.  Under these circumstances, “there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”  This is the most serious recall classification.

Class II recall:  The Class II recall classification refers to a moderate risk recall.  Under these circumstances, the “use of or exposure to a violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote.”

Class III recall:  The FDA considers a Class III recall as the lowest risk, indicating that the “product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences.”

How Do I Find Out About a Recall?

If a recall is big enough, you might hear about it on the news or on social media.  But not all recalls get that kind of attention.  Sites like offer a compilation of recent recalls to help you “Check Your Kitchen” for recalled products.  This information is compiled from various sources such as the FDA Recall and Market Withdrawal page or the USDA Recalls and Alerts page.

Here you will find out the specific products included in the recall.  Sometimes a recall only applies to a very specific lot or two of product (if the manufacturer was able to narrow down the problem).  Other times a complete market withdrawal occurs.

What Do I Do If I Have a Recalled Product?

I have a product that has been recalled.  Now what?  In most cases, the manufacturer indicates the product should be returned to the place of purchase for a full refund, but this isn’t always the case.  Check the source you have used for identifying the recalled product to determine exactly what to do.

Sometimes the manufacturer urges the customer to discard the product immediately and bring the receipt to the place of purchase for a refund.  Other times the manufacturer requests the consumer contact them by email or online so that a voucher may be sent so the product can be replaced with a safe product.

Availability of a phone number where a consumer can reach out with questions is a required action in a food recall.  You will find this information on the products recall source.

What If I Get Sick from a Recall?

If you are one of the unlucky ones that falls seriously ill as a result of negligence of a company, get medical attention as soon as possible.  It might also be a good idea to get a consultation from an attorney that specializes in these types of cases.  The Lange Law Firm is experienced and can help you recover from the process.  Reach out for a free consultation at 833-330-3663 or send us an e-mail here.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)