For the fifth consecutive year, Food Safety Magazine has compiled a list of food safety recalls announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS).

While it’s always possible that some recalls may fall through the cracks, our tally confirms 337 recalls issued in 2019—212 by FDA and 125 by USDA FSIS.

Much like 2018, last year seemed to experience a heightened number of food recalls—so much so that there seems to be some level of fatigue. Let's start by taking a look at the obvious—romaine lettuce.

Romaine Lettuce in 2019
More than half of the year passed before any new romaine lettuce events were back on everyone’s radar. Then on Halloween, FDA announced that, for 6 weeks, they had been investigating a new outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 likely linked to romaine lettuce.[1] The news instantly went viral, prompting the public and industry alike to wonder why the investigation was not publicized and why no recall or warning of any kind was issued to protect consumers. 

And that was just the beginning.

Through the end of the year, there were more outbreaks. Some contaminated Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp chopped salad kits infected 10 people in the U.S. and Canada with E. coli O157:H7.[2] Then, a larger outbreak that sickened 167 people was traced back to romaine lettuce that was grown in the Salinas Valley, CA, growing region, prompting the CDC to issue a warning to U.S. consumers and retailers not to eat, buy, or sell romaine from that region. The Salinas warning—and the overall outbreak—lasted until early 2020.[3]

Leafy greens aside, there are plenty more food safety events that led to the removal of products from shelves. Again, just as in years passed, undeclared ingredients were at the forefront of food recalls in 2019.

Undeclared Allergens
It’s likely no surprise at this point that undeclared allergens accounted for most of last year’s recalled foods—52 percent of them to be exact.

• Milk - 49

• Tree nuts - 24

• Eggs - 21

• Soy - 15

• Sulfites - 13

Other allergens that prompted recalls included wheat and peanuts.

Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli
Approximately 60 food products were recalled in 2019 for Listeria contamination. The most implicated foods were fresh and frozen produce items, followed by ready-to-eat deli products, and eggs.

Next, Salmonella was the cause of 24 food recalls, mostly related to pet food and baby spinach.

While E. coli was the culprit in 21 food recalls last year, one difference to note is that various strains, other than O157:H7, have been associated with more recall notices than in the past. Here’s the 2019 breakdown:

E. coli O26 caused nine recalls and all of those were linked to flour.

E. coli O157:H7 caused five recalls, four linked to beef products and one linked to romaine lettuce.

E. coli O103 caused four recalls linked to beef, bison, and sprouts.

E. coli O121 caused one recall linked to bison.

• Two E. coli recalls linked to deli products and flour had no specific strain identified in their recall notices.

Foreign Material Contamination
Approximately 50 food products were recalled for possibly containing foreign matter. Nearly half of these were due to the presence of plastic in beef and not-ready-to-eat frozen snack foods. Metal was the second most commonly implicated foreign material in last year’s recalled food products.

Last spring, Tyson Foods, Inc. recalled more than 11 million pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat chicken strip products that may have been contaminated with extraneous pieces of metal. The affected products, which were produced between October 2018 and March 2019, were said to contain metal fragments, according to consumer complaints. In response, the Tyson plant where these products were made discontinued use of the specific equipment believed to be associated with the metal fragments. Barbara Masters, Tyson Foods’ vice president of regulatory food policy, food, and agriculture, said that the plant would be installing metal detecting X-ray machinery to replace the plant’s existing system. The plant also planned to start using third-party video auditing for metal detection verification.[4]

Outbreaks of Note
According to CDC’s official list, 17 multistate foodborne outbreak investigations occurred in 2019. While these outbreaks were tied to everything from fresh produce to raw ground beef—and even one Listeria outbreak with no known source more than 2.5 years after the first confirmed illness was reported—last year’s list doesn’t top 2018, which had 24 outbreak investigations—the highest of any year since CDC’s tracking which dates back to 2006.[5]

The outbreak that appeared to have the largest, most wide-reaching impact in 2019 was a cyclosporiasis outbreak that sickened 241 people in 11 states. The Cyclospora cayetanensis infections that caused six people to be hospitalized, were traced back to a food commodity not commonly implicated in these sorts of events—fresh basil from Siga Logistics de RL de CV of Morelos, Mexico.[6]

How Will Recalls and Outbreaks Fare in 2020?
Plans focusing solely on the safety of leafy greens have been widely distributed, discussed, and critiqued. Most recently, FDA unveiled its 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action plan, which is designed to help foster a more urgent, collaborative, and action-oriented approach. While the Produce Safety Rule under FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act has been in place for over 4 years, this new endeavor is a commodity-specific action plan that aims to advance work in three areas: prevention, response, and addressing knowledge gaps.[8]

A few weeks before FDA’s announcement, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) published their own effort to address the recent foodborne outbreaks caused by romaine lettuce. LGMA’s work is centered around four main areas: stricter farming practices, farm worker training, in-depth review of best practices, and research initiatives.[9,10]

With leafy greens at the center of multiple foodborne outbreaks since 2017, it is no surprise that so many efforts are underway to better understand and approach how this commodity is grown and harvested. But let’s not forget that our food supply includes far more than leafy greens. What have you done lately to make food safer?