World Health Day is observed annually, but this year hits especially close to home for all of us here at Food Safety Magazine. That’s because on this day--April 7, 2015--the World Health Organization (WHO) is advocating for food safety, calling on producers, policy makers and consumers to promote food safety today and every day. 

Why is Food Safety So Important?
The prevalence of foodborne illness across the globe is undeniable, which is why it’s been chosen as this year’s focus for World Health Day. The facts, according to WHO, are alarming. More than 200 diseases are spread through food, and an estimated 1.5 million children die each year as a result of consuming unsafe food. WHO categorizes “unsafe food” as items that contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances. While proper food preparation can help to prevent a good portion of foodborne diseases, some types of contamination are not only unpredictable, but unavoidable--particularly once it reaches the hands of the consumer.

To illustrate this point, Food Safety Magazine tracked food recalls announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) from January 1, 2015 through March 31, 2015. We tallied 197 individual recalls--a handful of them stemming from a single contaminated item. For example, a single batch or shipment of contaminated meat could prompt multiple recalls at various regional or national distributors and retailers.

Types of Contamination
What food safety essentially boils down to is the few dangerous hazards that can lead to foodborne illness or even death, commonly culminating in a food recall. These dangers typically fall into at least one of three categories--chemical, microbiological or physical.

Chemical food contamination--Chemical contamination is exactly what it sounds like--elements such as dioxins, radionuclides and even disinfectants and sanitizers that pose health risks when exposed to food. Chemical contaminants can also include allergenic proteins that wreak havoc with certain food-allergic individuals. Chemicals can also enter food by way of certain cooking or heating methods. The recalls reviewed showed no signs of recalls linked to any type of chemical contamination.

Microbiological food contamination--Microbiological contamination is extremely common, appearing to trigger some of the most widespread and in some cases lethal recalls year to date. Usually caused by bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella or Staphylococcus, all sorts of microbiological contaminations were present in food recalls reported during the first quarter. Examples:

In January, an apple packing facility in Bakersfield, CA found Granny Smith and Gala apples to be contaminated with Listeria. The discovery led to multiple recalls of prepackaged caramel apples at a variety of distributors. Although the outbreak is believed to be over, the effects were devastating--35 cases in 12 states lead to 34 hospitalizations and seven deaths.

Last month, a very well-known national brand suffered its first recall after 108 years in business. Various ice cream products made by Blue Bell were found to be the cause of a Listeriosis outbreak in March. An investigation determined that the outbreak was linked to milkshakes made with Blue Bell ice cream served at a single hospital in Kansas after five victims--all of whom were admitted into the hospital for separate, unrelated reasons--all became infected. Three of those patients lost their lives. As of April 5, the Oklahoma plant where the ice cream was made has been temporarily shut down.

Also occurring in March was another microbiological food recall involving spinach--organic, frozen and dip varieties--due to a possible Listeria. The products were distributed at major retailers including Costco, Target, Wegmans. To date, there have been no reports of illness.

Physical food contamination--Physical contamination is when an object makes its way into the food that was not intended to be there. Perhaps the most high profile example of this occurred last month when Kraft Foods Group--one of the top 10 food companies in the world--announced a voluntary recall of 242,000 cases of its Original Macaroni & Cheese Box Dinners because they may contain small pieces of metal. The recall made waves across the U.S. since Kraft--and it’s signature boxed pasta--has been a staple in American homes for decades.

Taking a step back from some of last quarter’s most prevalent recalls, let’s take a closer look at pinpointing how food safety went wrong.

Common Culprit--Undeclared Allergens - 57 percent of recalls
Of the 197 recalls we looked at, 114 referenced at least one undeclared allergen. Some were far more common than others.

1. Peanuts - 31 recalls (27 percent)

2. Milk - 22 recalls (19 percent)

3. Eggs - 10 recalls (9 percent)

4. Soy - 8 recalls (7 percent)

5. Almonds - 7 recalls (6 percent)

6. Mustard - 6 recalls (5 percent)

7. Sulphites - 4 recalls (3 percent)

8. Wheat - 4 recalls (3 percent)

9. Tree nuts - 3 recalls (3 percent)

10. Sesame - 2 recalls (2 percent)

11. Gluten - 1 recall (0.8 percent)

12. Hazelnuts - 1 recall (0.8 percent)

13. Shellfish - 1 recall (0.8 percent)

14. Shrimp - 1 recall (0.8 percent)

15. Walnuts - 1 recall (0.8 percent)

About one-third of the recalls caused by undeclared peanuts stemmed from a single product--cumin. A spice originating from India and the surrounding region, cumin is commonly used--in both whole and ground forms--for cooking. It’s also commonly added to curry powder and some cheeses.

Consumers allergic to peanuts were warned by the FDA to avoid products made in 2015 containing cumin or cumin powder because shipments had tested positive for undeclared peanut protein. What made this product recall so massive is the wide variety of items that may have been affected--spice mixes and kits, or the cumin may have been added to finished foods such as soups or sauces.

Salmonella - 14 percent of recalls
Foods contaminated with Salmonella accounted for 14 percent (27 recalls) of last quarter’s recalls. Affected food types in this category did vary, but predominantly consisted of seeds, nuts, spices and some pet treats. Ironically, the CDC points to other foods as being closely associated with Salmonella poisoning--undercooked meat, raw eggs and unpasteurized milk. Still, the foodborne disease is linked to an estimated one million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.

Misbranding - 12 percent of recalls
Twelve percent of recalls (24) were due to misbranding. These recalls present somewhat of a double edge sword. Not only are these items improperly labeled--which is misleading to the consumer--but it usually accompanies an undeclared allergen, which presents a dangerous health risk to consumers with certain food allergies.

Listeria - 11 percent of recalls
Listeria contamination is linked to 22 recalls (11 percent). Affected food items in this category vary widely--from apples and smoked salmon to dairy products and pet food. Listeria is particularly dangerous to specific consumer groups--newborns, pregnant women, older adults and individuals with weakened immune systems. Much like Salmonella, Listeria is commonly linked to uncooked meats and produce, raw milk and products derived from such ingredients. The CDC also classifies smoked seafood as a common source of Listeria.

The Ambiguity of a “Possible Health Risk” - 45 percent of recalls
What’s noticeable about food recalls linked to Listeria and Salmonella is how they are initially identified and announced by the CDC, CFIA, FDA and USDA. Nearly half (45 percent) of all recalls identified as a “possible health risk” were actually linked to Salmonella. Twenty-seven percent of recalls with the same warning were linked to Listeria. Other recalls classified as “possible health risks” were caused by Staphylococcus enterotoxin, Clostridium botulinum (discussed in more detail below), undeclared allergens and food animals that had been not been properly eviscerated (disemboweled).

Lack of Proper Inspection - 4.5 percent of recalls
There were 9 recalls (4.5 percent) that were caused by lack of proper inspection. All but one of these recalls happened to be meat items - beef, chicken, lamb and pork. Each of items fell into at least one of the following categories:

• Imported without the benefit of inspection

• Produced without the benefit of (import) inspection

• Imported from ineligible country without benefit of import inspection

Nearly 275,000 pounds of meat (beef, chicken stew products, lamb, pork and poultry) were recalled because they were not inspected upon importation into the U.S. These items originated from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Poland and the Republic of Korea. Beef and pork products from Portugal were not accepted because the country is not eligible to export meat products into the U.S.

Because the food supply chain is a highly complicated international system, it is imperative that governments, food producers and industry experts collaborate in order to give consumers what they need and deserve--safe and nutritious food.

Dangerous Bacteria and Clostridium botulinum - 2 percent of recalls
Every recall said to be caused by dangerous bacteria turned out to be Clostridium botulinum--a microbiological hazard. All of these were related to fish--specifically Arctic char, herring, trout and whitefish. Clostridium botulinum is an anaerobic, heat-resistant spore-forming rod that can survive in foods that are incorrectly or minimally processed, according to the CDC. Botulism is known to cause paralysis and even death if not treated quickly.

Escherichia coli - 1 percent of recalls
There were two recalls related to E. coli contamination and both were traced back to meat products--beef and chicken. The E. coli bacteria is difficult to comprehend on many fronts. Some strains are harmless while others can lead to severe sickness. Although it is not considered dangerous in water, E. coli-contaminated foods can trigger anything from mild diarrhea to pneumonia to death.

Staphylococcus enterotoxin - 1 percent of recalls
There were two recalls with traces of Staphylococcus and both were for similar items--flavored protein powder and organic sacha inchi powder. Staphylococcal food poisoning is a gastrointestinal disease that’s passed on from food workers who handle food without washing their hands. The bacterium multiplies in food, thus producing toxins that can sicken consumers. Besides passage through direct contact, Staphylococcus enterotoxin is also commonly found in raw milk and cheese products. These toxins are heat resistant, which means that cooking will not destroy them. According to the CDC, the foods most at risk for this type of contamination are foods that are handmade and require no cooking--deli meats, puddings, pastries and sandwiches. The contamination cannot be detected by smell or sight.

Rare and Special Cases
There are a few causes of recalls not addressed thus far that each only occurred once during the 3-month period reviewed. About 8,856 pounds of chicken tamales were recalled because they were “produced without inadequate ‘ready-to-eat’ HACCP plan and a Listeria monocytogenes program”. Thirty-two pounds of beef jerky was recalled because of a “processing deviation”. A single batch of raw frozen cat food was recalled because it had a “low thiamine level”. Finally, select cookies were recalled because the Nutrition Facts table displayed the “incorrect carbohydrate declaration”.

There was even one case in which a recall was issued and included no cause either direct or suspected. The FDA announced a recall of ice cream products made by Snoqualmie Ice Cream Inc. in late December. It wasn’t until a corrective action plan later issued by the company said that “environmental testing could not rule out Listeria monocytogenes” as a possible cause.

Pulling It All Together
We can see that undeclared allergens accounts for a sizable portion of food recalls. To combat this, there are many laboratories that continue to create and improve test kits and related products to detect allergens before they reach the consumer. Also, despite all the data that can be assessed, it is unclear how much all these recalls add up to. Even a study by researchers at Kansas State University admits that beside the actual food items themselves, it’s impossible to calculate costs related to things like medical expenses, time off from work and lives lost.

It cannot be stressed enough just how complex the world of food safety really is. Food contamination like the instances mentioned here can take place at any point from farm to table--production, slaughtering, harvesting, processing, storage, transport, distribution or even in the hands of the consumer. Everyone must work together in order to make food safer--from government agencies and academians to food producers and the end consumer.

One positive takeaway that can be gleaned from these findings is that these failures do not tell the whole story. There have been plenty more successes to be excited about, and there are lots of instances out there of food safety being done the right way. World Health Day gives us the opportunity to expand awareness about these occurrences--both positive and negative.

Editor’s Note: Food Safety Magazine reviewed 197 food recalls that were announced during the first quarter of 2015. We are aware that additional recalls may have been released during this time that we did not account for.