An open letter is urging the federal agency to take specific steps in the next six months.
Americans experience more food recalls today than they did five years ago, particularly when it comes to meat and poultry, a government watchdog analysis found.
Meat and poultry recalls increased by two-thirds from 2013 to 2018 while food recalls overall edged up 10 percent, according to the report published Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
The group claims the numbers prove more could be done to protect the public against contaminations, like E. coli and salmonella. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne disease each year in the United States.
“We need to be looking for these farm-to-fork preventative solutions that are logical,” said Adam Garber, PIRG’s consumer watchdog. “By doing that, we can protect people’s health.”
The analysis follows a year full of food safety scares. Two E. coli contaminations in romaine lettuce left five dead and more than 100 hospitalized, while Americans purged their leafy greens. A salmonella outbreak in raw beef sickened 246 people and caused 12 million pounds of beef to be discarded.
Most people take precautions to avoid contracting salmonella poisoning from raw chicken, but there are other foods that are surprisingly more likely to harbor the harmful bacteria.
However, 2018’s 703 recalls wasn’t enough to be a banner year. Despite the total number of recalls up 10 percent over 2013, the total reached a five-year peak of 905 in 2016.
Over the five-year period, poultry posted the most recalls with 168 followed by beef (137) and pork (128).
The report, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, shows the most serious meat recalls are on the rise. Among meat and poultry, the number of Class I recalls increased by 83 percent, nearly doubling, since 2013. Class I, the most hazardous of the recalls, is issued when there is a reasonable probability the food will cause health problems or death.
The American Association of Meat Producers (AAMP), which claims to be North America’s largest meat trade organization, said Class I recalls can also occur due to misbranding and because of undeclared allergens.
“While there has been an increase in recalls in recent years, the industry will continue to work diligently with FSIS (USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service) to take better control of those circumstances,” said AAMP Executive Director Chris Young.
Aside from meat, processed food and produce recalls increased just 2 percent. Ritz and Goldfish crackers, Honey Smacks cereal, melon and soy nut butter all had recalls over the five-year period — not to mention the outbreaks in romaine.
PIRG offered a number of potential reasons for the increase in recalls, but could not identify a single root cause.
Whatever it is, the food industry and regulators should take note of the report’s findings, said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Numbers aside, any time you see large amounts of contaminated meat reaching consumers, that is a problem,” she said.
PIRG called for a number of changes to the U.S. food system, some of which are often championed by food safety advocates. Among them is better testing of irrigation water. Contaminated water on or near farms were linked to both of 2018’s romaine lettuce outbreaks.
The group also seeks more stringent inspection and monitoring of food producers, granting the USDA mandatory recall authority for meat and poultry and penalizing companies who continue to sell after a recall. They also want to improve the systems by which retailers alert customers of recalls and the technologies used to trace contaminated produce and meat through the food supply.
In the meantime, Garber suggests consumers continue to cook their meat to temperature and properly wash their vegetables. To stay up to date on what in your cupboard might be contaminated, he suggests signing up for FDA and USDA recall alerts and using the resources grocery stores offer to alert their customers to recalls.
Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman
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