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February 22, 2022

What’s Happening with Food Recalls?

Food recalls are a major risk for companies in the food manufacturing and distribution industry. According to Food Dive, a study from the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that a recall can cost $10 million, and that’s just in direct costs. Companies may also face indirect costs and reputational damage. Since the beginning of the pandemic, food recall numbers have fluctuated wildly. Here’s a look at what’s happening now.

USDA Recalls Plummeted in 2020

The USDA issues food recalls for meat, poultry, and eggs. In 2020, the number of USDA recalls plummeted. Between 2015 and 2019, there were more than 100 recalls each year. Then in 2020, there were only 31 recalls. The number of pounds recalled also plummeted from more than 20 million in 2019 to only about 1.4 million in 2020.

In 2021, the numbers rose again, especially in terms of pounds, although the figures were still below 2019 levels. There were 47 recalls involving about 15 million pounds in 2021.

FDA Recalls Dropped, Too

FDA food recalls also dropped, although the most significant drop was seen in 2021, not 2020. In 2019, there were 7,894 recalls. In 2020, there were 7,252 recalls, and in 2021, there were only 5,310 recalls.

An analysis of FDA recalls from Food Industry Association shows other changes in trends. In 2019, 39% of private branded recalls were issued due to concerns of Listeria monocytogenes contamination, making this the most common cause. In 2020, only 7% of private branded recalls were due to Listeria contamination. Undeclared allergens were the most common cause of private branded recalls, representing 55% of recalls.

Why Did Food Recalls Drop?

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the drop in recalls coincides with the pandemic. So, is the pandemic responsible for the decrease in recalls?

According to an NPR report, no one is really sure. Officials and food safety experts don’t know why the number of recalls dropped. It could be a good sign, indicating that our food systems are getting safer. It could also mean that COVID-related disruption is letting issues that would normally trigger a recall slip through the cracks unnoticed.

There’s also the fact that some food manufacturers shut down temporarily because of COVID outbreaks. According to a CNN report from April 2020 – the early days of the pandemic – pork processing plants were hit especially hard, and both large and small companies had to shut down. In addition to supply chain issues, this could have impacted the number of USDA recalls.

Food Recalls Are Still a Concern

Regardless of why numbers dropped in 2020 and 2021, it’s safe to say that food recalls are still a major threat. Safety concerns are still leading to expensive food recalls, as well as deaths and injuries. Here are just a few of the recalls that have occurred in recent months:

  • The CDC says it is investigating two separate Listeria outbreaks linked to packaged salads. The outbreaks have impacted 13 states and led to 13 hospitalizations and two deaths. Packaged salads produced by Dole and sold under multiple brands have been recalled. The “best by” dates are from November 30, 2021, to January 9, 2022.
  • The USDA says that Interstate Meat Dist. Inc. recalled ground beef products over possible E. coli contamination in early 2022. More than 18 thousand pounds of meat have been recovered.
  • In 2021, Tyson Foods recalled 8.5 million pounds of frozen chicken over Listeria concerns. The CDC says the outbreak, which is now over, was connected to three hospitalizations and one death.

Food Product Liability Lawsuits and Criminal Charges

Contaminated food can also trigger costly lawsuits. FoodNavigator says that at least 86 lawsuits have been filed against companies named in a Congressional Subcommittee report alleging dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals in baby food.

If a company is found to have been negligent in regard to a contamination incident, the consequences can be extreme. In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries agreed to pay $19.35 million over a Listeria contamination incident and coverup, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

But fines aren’t the only possible outcome. Food Safety News warns that food producers who sell adulterated food could face fines and jail time. The site lists several examples, including the Blue Bell case, where criminal charges were brought.

The recent drop in food recalls seems like good news. Before the food industry relaxes too much, however, it’s important to remember that the exact cause of the decline is unknown, and food safety is still a critical issue.

Need Help Managing Your Risks?

Whether you’re a grower, packer, manufacturer, or distributor, you need a broker who understands the unique risks facing the food industry.

Food industry businesses count on Heffernan Insurance Brokers’ food industry division for:

  • Food product liability
  • Crop insurance
  • Dependent property/key customer
  • Equipment breakdown
  • Farm, ranch, and livestock
  • Foreign liability
  • Motor truck cargo
  • Pollution legal liability
  • Product contamination & brand rehabilitation
  • Trade credit
  • Warehouse legal liability

To learn more about how we can help, contact Food Practice Leader, Peter Picetti.

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