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USDA and FDA Most Wanted List! Top Food Offenders for Foreign Material Contamination

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on February 26, 2019

It seems like every time you turn around there is another recall.  Lately more and more “foreign material” or “foreign body” contamination recalls are coming out.  They were always there.  It just seems like they are more prevalent than in years past. That got me thinking.  Are there any foods that are a higher risk than others?  As a consumer, is there a specific type of food I should avoid or be more vigilant in inspecting prior to eating?  Here are the top food offenders for foreign material contamination

But first, let’s explore what exactly is meant by “foreign material contamination.”

Foreign Material Contamination Defined

A foreign material is essentially a non-food item or in some cases an unintended food item in food that poses a health risk if consumed.  This can take the form of many different materials.

Inadvertent items from the field such as stones, metal, insects, dirt, small animals, or undesirable vegetable matter such as thorns or wood fit this category.  You wouldn’t want to bite into a stone while chomping on a piece of bread, now would you.

Inadvertent items resulting from the processing and handling of food products such as bone, glass, metal, grease, paint chips rust, nuts, bolts, wood, screening, cloth, or other materials result in foreign material contamination.  These items often make their way into food by mishandling or improper equipment maintenance.

Sometimes foreign materials are introduced to a food product during the distribution process.  Items such as insects, metal, dirt, or stones may end up in the food during packaging and distribution.

Sometimes, though rare, food may be contaminated with foreign material through nefarious means.  Employee sabotage, for example.  A disgruntled worker on their way out the door might throw some glass into the mixer in hopes of getting their soon to be ex-employer in trouble.

Struvite and other materials may also be a cause of foreign material contamination.  Essentially anything that doesn’t belong there that can be harmful could act as an agent of foreign material contamination.

In a passive surveillance study using Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) consumer complaints that were reported from 2001 to September 2002, 1,309 complaints were received.  About a quarter of those complaints (331 cases) were related to foreign materials.  About 6% of those actually resulted in an injury.  The most commonly reported materials were glass, metal, and plastic.

Size Matters

The United States Food and Drug Administration explains size really does matter.  When it comes to foreign materials in food, that is.  Over a 25-year period and 190 cases where hard or sharp foreign materials were reported, enough data was generated to determine the size of a foreign object that is likely to cause injury.  The answer to this question is 7 mm to 25 mm hard, sharp foreign objects.  Those larger than 25 mm were deemed so large that the agency considered there was little chance of a consumer eating the foreign body.

A Look Back at 2018

A company known as Stericycle Expert Solutions compiles both United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and FDA recall data and puts it in a nifty statistical listing each quarter.  In my curiosity for which foods are the biggest foreign material offenders, I stumbled upon this gem.  The first 3 quarters for 2018 have been listed.

In the first quarter, a huge bump in foreign material contamination recalls was observed.  In fact, it has not reached this level since 2016.  In this quarter, 53.5% of all recalls reported through the FDA were due to foreign material contamination.  The majority of these recalls (78%) was cause by some kind of metal contamination.  On the USDA side, 14.3% were attributed to foreign material contamination.

The second quarter showed an increase in USDA reported foreign material contamination recalls at 31%.  Likely due to a historic shell egg recall during that quarter, the FDA reported a very small percentage of foreign material contamination.  When you consider the millions of units of eggs that were recalled during that time, even a significant number of foreign material contamination reports would still be a drop in the bucket.

During the third quarter, the company did not report any information on foreign material contamination.  The egg recall continued during this quarter.  At this time the fourth quarter statistics are not available.

FDA Recall vs USDA Recall

So we can safely say that foreign material contamination is likely on the rise.  But what foods should I be worried about?  It seems that between the two recall agencies – FDA and USDA, the USDA seems to report more foreign material contamination recalls.  This is largely due to the types of food each agency is responsible for.  While there is some overlap, there are major distinctions.

The USDA is responsible for meat, poultry, and egg products.  This is why you hear about beef or pork recalls from this agency.  All other food products are under the jurisdiction of the FDA.  Cereals, vegetables, etc. all answer to this agency.

There is one exception.  Eggs.  With respect to eggs, shell eggs fall under the FDA jurisdiction but egg products are fair game for the USDA.  That is, unless manure from a feedlot is involved in the shell egg issue.

That just got complicated. But that does seem to answer my original question.  What are the worst food offenders when it comes to foreign material contamination?  What should I be more vigilant in inspecting or should I avoid some particular food altogether?

Meat Products are the Worst Offenders

Connecting the dots, I have come to link the USDA with meat products as the worst food offenders.  This has a lot to do with how the food is processed and the equipment used in the processing.  Ground meat products must go through, well, a grinder.  Shards of metal in a poorly maintained grinder are likely to cause a problem.  Gaskets in equipment are not unbreakable.  When they break, they may end up in the food product and result in a foreign material recall.  Not to mention bone fragments that might make their way into a product you would not expect bone.

Does this mean that I will swear off meat for good?  The carnivore in me says, “not likely.”  But I know that I should pay better attention to my ground beef or turkey as I am removing it from the package and during the cooking process.  By paying a little more attention I can head off a potential injury and avoid feeding my family potentially harmful food.

A Look at Recent Recalls

Recently, breaded chicken products have taken a beating with respect to USDA recalls.  These originated from multiple manufacturers and are comprised of several different foreign material contaminants.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation recalled 58,020 pounds of not-ready-to-eat breaded chicken products potentially contaminated with rubber pieces.  The problem was discovered as a result of a consumer complaint.

Tyson Foods, Inc recalled approximately 36,420 pounds of chicken nugget products potentially contaminated with rubber.  The problem was discovered as a result of consumer complaints of extraneous material found in Panko Chicken Nugget products.

Johnsonville, LLC recalled approximately 48,371 pounds of raw ground pork patty products potentially contaminated with black rubber.  The problem was discovered as a result of three consumer complaints of black rubber found in the product.

Perdue Foods, LLC recalled approximately 68,244 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken nugget products potentially contamination with wood.  The problem was discovered after three consumer complaints of wood found in the product.

J.H. Routh Packing Co. recalled approximately 1,719 pounds of raw pork sausage products potentially contaminated with rubber.  In this case, the company discovered the problem and initiated a recall.

R.L. Zeigler Co., Inc recalled approximately 11,664 pounds of ready-to-eat poultry and meat sausage potentially contaminated with metal. The problem was discovered after two consumer complaints.

Vermont Packinghouse, LLC recalled 10,828 pounds of raw intact bone-in beef quarters potentially contaminated with specific risk material due to cattle over 30 months of age at time of slaughter.  The problem was discovered by FSIS.

CTI Foods recalled approximately 29,028 pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat pork and sausage links product potentially contaminated with metal.  The problem was discovered after five consumer complaints.

The list goes on and on.

Bottom Line?

Chicken nuggets and ground meat products are the top of my “inspect thoroughly” list.  Does this mean I will swear off these foods?  No.  For the most part, food manufacturers do what they are supposed to do to prevent this from happening and discover problems before they leave the packaging department.  Sometimes, however, things fall through the cracks.

Then what is the best defense?  Look at your food when you are preparing it and eating it.  Also, keep an eye out for recalls. is a great source for checking your pantry and refrigerator for recalled products.  Check back often to help Make Food Safe in your home.

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