Red, white and yellow onions. Garden salad. Bean sprouts. Parsley.
These are just some of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-issued recalls seen this fall. But as one food safety expert says, if it seems like there are more produce recalls recently, it’s not indicative that the food system is less safe.
Instead, it likely tracks back to the updating of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) under former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010. “This was the first major overhaul of food oversight in 70 years,” says Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, director for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention and assistant professor of food safety and public health at The Ohio State University in Columbus. With that update though came more enforcement tools for the FDA which included mandatory recall authority. “So, we’re better at finding problems today compared to even five or 10 years ago. The FDA has more regulatory oversight,” says Kowalcyk.
However, as it’s touched virtually every aspect of society, food safety has felt the effects of the pandemic. Starting with a backlog in food inspections. “During the pandemic, the FDA suspended inspections for food safety,” says Kowalcyk. That said, under FSMA, the updated oversight included increasing facility inspections from once every 10 years to once every seven or once every five for higher risk facilities. “So, it’s not like they were inspecting facilities every year.”
At the same time, food safety at retail food establishments--which includes grocery stores--was delegated to be handled at the state rather than federal level. “And most of the states stopped their food retail inspections,” says Kowalcyk.
And then there’s the consumer behavior factor. Most common foodborne illness symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea--symptoms many people will often deal with at home rather than looking for medical attention to the level where it would hit the radar of a food safety inspection. Add to that COVID-19. “So, it’s hard for us to know if the case reporting is accurate. People also didn’t want to go to the doctor because they didn’t want to be exposed to COVID,” says Kowalcyk. “So, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s this many foodborne-related illnesses in 2020, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Those are only the most severe cases.”
The very prominent current labor shortage also plays a role in this. “There’s a workforce crisis and workers are under stress. Under stress, people tend to make more mistakes. A lot of us are concerned about this because these are the secondary impacts of what the pandemic is doing to the safety of food,” says Kowalcyk, noting this could be an issue for growers and shippers as well who are also contending with labor shortages.
As for the produce industry, Kowalcyk notes that as a whole, the industry has improved--and continues to--with its prevention and detection of potential problems and it’s improved its food tracing. “The produce industry is doing a lot but there’s always more that can be done,” she says, noting there’s growing recognition and improvements around the quality of irrigation water and ensuring that soil amendments are properly composed to avoid spreading pathogens.
However, she also encourages the industry to continue to look beyond their own farms. “Yes, you should be concerned with what’s happening within your own organization. But also be concerned about what’s happening in the industry broadly. One bad actor can bring down everyone else,” Kowalcyk says.
Look no further than the papaya industry. Last year the papaya growing industry focused on strengthening its food safety practices and in the summer of 2020, government officials from both the U.S. and Mexico, along with the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA) and the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) created the “Food Safety Best Practices Guide for the Growing & Handling of Mexican Papaya, First Edition.” This followed Salmonella-related recalls seen in the summer of 2019.
What is changing is how recall notices are being sent out--yes, media stories often emerge around recalls. “But a lot of companies with shopping cart data are moving towards notifying customers that they’ve purchased the product and it has been recalled which is really effective,” Kowalcyk says, noting recalls are also appearing on grocery receipts alerting customers to recalls on previous purchases.
And what about litigation from consumers over recalls? After all, this month a Texas couple filed a lawsuit over the recent onion recall. “Product liability has a very high standard to meet,” says Kowalcyk. “You hear about it because it makes the news but there are a lot of people, even when they file a lawsuit, they don’t actually get any settlement. The vast majority of foodborne illnesses cases don’t even get to litigation.”