The Anatomy of a Food Recall

Illustration composite by Mental Floss. Egg carton: iStock
Illustration composite by Mental Floss. Egg carton: iStock

The U.S. is still reeling from a widespread salmonella outbreak that has seen a handful of foods disappear from supermarket shelves and restaurant menus this summer. So far this year, the bacteria has been linked to nearly a dozen products, including raw turkey, pre-cut melon, shell eggs, frozen shredded coconut, chicken salad, raw sprouts, and Honey Smacks cereal.

Although food recalls are ever-present in the news, statistics show they aren’t necessarily on the rise. Annual food recalls tend to fluctuate from year to year, but in 2017 there were 2945 recalls—854 fewer than there were in 2010. Meat recalls, which are handled separately from other foods, have also fluctuated since 2010. In that time period, there have been as few as 70 recalls in a year and as many as 150.

Of the nearly 3000 food recalls reported by the FDA in 2017, only 16.5 percent were considered Class I, meaning that there is a reasonable probability that consumption or exposure to a food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.

Still, foodborne illnesses are a serious issue that affect an estimated 48 million people each year, or around one in six Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leading to approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3000 deaths annually. Preventing these illnesses, or catching them before they become an epidemic, is the challenge governmental bodies tasked with protecting consumers and keeping our food safe undertake—a most serious matter when lives are at stake.

But how do they know when a product is unsafe, and when exactly are foods pulled from store shelves? To answer those questions, we've broken down the food recall process into a few steps.

CONTAMINATION DISCOVERY

Health issues within the food supply chain can be discovered in several different ways. Sometimes a manufacturer detects an issue while doing internal sampling and opts to voluntarily recall a product. The specific sampling method that's used depends on the type of pathogen that's being tested for, but federal guidelines outline how a company should handle food safety.

For instance, the FDA's guide to listeria detection recommends that companies take both environmental samples (swabbing a surface or assembly line, for instance, to check for the presence of harmful bacteria) as well as samples of ready-to-eat foods through "hold and test" procedures [PDF]. Testing can be done either in-house or by an outside lab, and the frequency of sampling depends on the risk for that particular pathogen. However, at the very least, sampling should be done on at least a monthly or quarterly basis.

Other times, a government agency learns about an issue through routine product sampling, during inspections of a manufacturing facility, or after receiving complaints. When papaya was linked to salmonella last November, the FDA took samples along the food supply chain and used whole genome sequencing—a technology that analyzes the DNA "fingerprints" of an organism—to create a “genetic family tree of the pathogens to see where they came from,” FDA spokesman Peter Cassell tells Mental Floss. That information then gets uploaded to an international network called GenomeTrakr, which allowed the FDA to identify four farms in Mexico as the source of contamination and distinguish between the four outbreaks.

Health officials at the state, local, and international levels use the database to compare data, and agencies like the FDA, USDA, and CDC use it to match sample results with known clusters of illnesses, Cassell says. This technology became available in 2008, but the network improved in 2013, at which time the practice was standardized.

When contamination isn't immediately caught by a company or government agency, no one will be aware of it until people start getting sick. That's what happened in April, when 11 people were hospitalized with salmonella poisoning.

TRACEBACK

In that case, the CDC reported the issue and worked with the FDA to figure out what was causing the illness.

“When someone gets sick and they go to the doctor, the doctor will take samples from them, it goes to a lab, and that gets reported to the CDC,” Cassell explains. “Once they see that picture of widespread illness, we start working on ‘traceback,’ which is trying to figure out what all those people ate in common.”

During April's salmonella outbreak, government agencies and health partners interviewed patients and learned that they had all consumed eggs. By collecting and analyzing detailed records of what the patients had eaten and where the products had come from, the FDA was able to pinpoint Rose Acre Farms—the second largest egg producer in the U.S.—as a potential source of contamination, and specifically a farm in Hyde County, North Carolina. The FDA then conducted a traceback investigation, which involved visiting a company facility and collecting samples for testing. Those samples came back positive for salmonella.

“It’s all detective work to try to figure out what exactly caused someone to get sick,” Cassell says. Traceback investigations involve working backwards through the supply chain to determine the root of the problem, which is especially challenging when it comes to perishable items like fruits and veggies because “lot numbers and grower identifications are not routinely used or recorded on shipping records,” according to the FDA’s traceback guide.

“There’s the assumption that all these records are electronic, and in some cases they’re not,” Cassell says.

In the case of Rose Acre Farms, what ensued was a voluntary recall of over 200 million eggs. Almost all food recalls are voluntarily initiated by a company, as opposed to being initiated by a government agency. (However, it’s worth noting that in many cases, companies have already been told by a governmental body that one of their foods is problematic, and the FDA has the authority to mandate a recall in certain cases. So although it’s considered “voluntary,” companies don’t really have much of a choice in the matter.)

Companies are typically cooperative during the traceback process, though. When two people in Florida opened their Walmart salad in 2017 and found a dead bat lying inside, Walmart launched its own investigation. The company was able to link the deceased creature to a specific production number and best-if-used-by date, and only a small shipment of Organic Marketside Spring Mix had to be recalled.

The source isn't always so easy to determine, though. The recent romaine lettuce scare, which was linked to the biggest E. coli outbreak in over a decade, was one such case. Five people died, 210 fell ill, and 96 were hospitalized, including 27 who suffered from kidney failure. First reported in mid-March, the outbreak swept through 36 states and wasn’t officially declared over until June 28.

As Vox reported, health officials knew that the lettuce was linked to contaminated canal water in Yuma, Arizona, but they couldn’t determine the exact source.

“We didn’t have a common supplier, distributor, or manufacturer identified,” Cassell says. For that reason, the lettuce could not be recalled because there was no particular company to hold accountable, and the system doesn't permit an entire industry to be incriminated when the source of the problem hasn't been discovered. Instead, the FDA did the next best thing and released a public warning telling consumers to avoid the leafy greens.

THE RECALL

In one of the most famous examples of a food recall, Westland/Hallmark forfeited 143 million pounds of beef in 2008 after the USDA learned that the company had been slaughtering cows that were too weak or ill to stand, and thus the meat was unfit for human consumption. It ended up being the largest food recall in U.S. history, and the cost of the process—plus the ensuing litigation—bankrupted the company.

According to a 2011 Grocery Manufacturers Association survey [PDF] of 36 food companies including big names like General Mills, The Coca-Cola Company, and Kellogg Company, a single food recall can generally cost a company up to $30 million (sometimes even more).

Meat and some egg products are handled by a governmental agency called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. The FSIS handles about 20 percent of all food recalls, and the processes for sampling, detection, and recall are similar to the FDA’s.

While the stories we hear on the news are often extreme examples, food recalls typically aren’t public health nightmares. Most are initiated because of undeclared allergens (like the recent recall of 145,000 cartons of almond milk that might have contained cow's milk) or out of an abundance of caution.

PULLING PRODUCTS

Once a product is recalled, stores are required to remove it from their shelves. Companies whose products have been recalled must reach out to their distributors and make them aware of the recall, and both the FSIS and FDA check that recalled products have been pulled from store shelves.

Sometimes, retailers don't get the memo or don't act accordingly. Nearly a month after the FDA announced a recall of Honey Smacks cereal, the agency learned in mid-July that the product was still being offered for sale. "Retailers cannot legally offer the cereal for sale and consumers should not purchase Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal," the agency wrote in an online warning. "The FDA will continue to monitor this situation closely and follow up with retailers as we become aware of recalled products being offered for sale."

The latest recalls are always posted on the websites of the FDA and FSIS, and it’s up to those agencies to decide when a recall should be closed and when a food is safe to eat again.

At the end of the day, it’s all about doing what’s necessary to protect the consumer. “We want to make sure that these products are removed from the market as quickly as possible,” Cassell says. Indeed, these agencies play a crucial role in what we eat and when we eat it. So go ahead and order that Caesar salad—romaine lettuce is safe to eat and back on the menu again.

15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of The Great British Baking Show

Netflix
Netflix

by Sarah Dobbs

If you’re an American fan of The Great British Bake Off you probably know it better as The Great British Baking Show (though its most devoted fans simply call it GBBO, which saves a lot of time). While its ninth season just kicked off on England’s Channel 4, American audiences are only now just getting caught up on season eight via Netflix. And with new hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig taking over for Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, plus Prue Leith taking over for Mary Berry as host, the latest incarnation of the show looks a lot different.

A bona fide global sensation, the baking competition has the power to cause otherwise rational human beings to immediately run to their nearest supermarket in search of obscure ingredients like psyllium or Amarula cream liqueur. It’s a charming, retro, warming hug of a TV show. But how much do you know about what goes on behind the scenes? Without destroying any of your illusions, here are some secrets about how the producers whip up one of the world's most beloved cooking shows.

1. THE REASON WHY IT HAS TWO DIFFERENT NAMES IS SIMPLE.

A scene from The Great British Bake Off
Netflix

If you’ve ever wondered why the series is called The Great British Bake Off in England and The Great British Baking Show in America, the answer is simple: Pillsbury. The Pillsbury Bake Off, which kicked off in 1949, is probably America’s most famous baking contest. And the company didn’t want there to be any confusion among viewers, hence The Great British Baking Show.

2. THE OVENS ALL HAVE TO BE TESTED EVERY DAY.

It’s difficult enough to make a cake that Paul Hollywood won’t declare either under- or over-baked without having to worry about whether your oven is working properly. So for every day of filming, every oven has to be tested. And because this is a baking show, they’re tested with cakes. Yes, every day every oven has a Victoria sponge cake cooked in it, to make sure everything’s working exactly as it should be.

3. EVERY TIME SOMEONE OPENS AN OVEN DOOR, THERE'S A CAMERA WATCHING THEM.

To make sure they catch all the drama, GBBO producers insist that every time a bake is put into or taken out of an oven, the moment must be caught on camera. So whenever a baker wants to put their goodies into an oven, or check if they’re ready to come out, they need to grab someone to make sure the moment gets captured on film. (Which must be a hassle for the first couple of weeks, when there are more than 10 bakers all trying their best to produce a perfect bake at once.)

4. THE CONTESTANTS HAVE TO WEAR THE SAME CLOTHES ALL WEEKEND.

It’s a minor thing, but have you ever noticed that the bakers wear the same clothes for an entire episode, even though it’s shot over two days? For continuity purposes, the contestants are asked to wear the same outfits for the entire weekend. If you’re the kind of baker who ends up with flour all over your shirt whenever you bake up a loaf of bread, the second day of filming could be a bit of a nightmare.

"Luckily they change the aprons so we don't look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the end of it," 2013 champion Frances Quinn told Cosmopolitan. "I think layers [is the answer], but even then you still have to wear what you had on, on top. Difficult."

5. THE CONTESTANTS DON’T HAVE A LOT OF DOWNTIME.

Having any time to spare is not something that season seven contestant Jane Beedle remembers happening regularly for the contestants. "Maybe once or twice, and when they did we would just sit and have a cup of tea and chat with the people around us,” she told the Mirror. "They don't like it if you have nothing to do, so they try and make the challenges as difficult as possible to keep you busy."

6. THE TEMPERATURE IN THE TENT CAN MAKE OR BREAK A BAKE.

Sue Perkins, Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, and Frances Quinn in 'The Great British Bake Off'
BBC

Forget setting the oven to the correct temperature—the temperature inside the tent is just as important to a bake. "It's completely alien to your own kitchen at home,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “The temperature fluctuates—you'd be making a meringue and it would start raining, or we'd try and make pastry and it would be 27 degrees outside. The technical challenges and lack of time and lack of fridge and work space are the enemy on that show."

7. THE ILLUSTRATIONS ARE CREATED BY TOM HOVEY, AFTER THE EPISODE HAS FILMED.

You know those fun illustrations of the confections that pop up when each baker explains what they’re going to make that day? Those are all drawn by illustrator Tom Hovey. He was working as a video editor on the first season of GBBO when the producers realized they needed an extra visual element—so he offered his illustration skills. And while we see the illustrations on screen before the bakers attempt to make them a reality, Hovey told the BBC he draws them “a pack of photos of the finished bakes from the set after each episode has been filmed … I sketch out all the bakes quickly in pencil to get the details, form and shape I am after. I then work these up by hand drawing them all in ink, then they’re scanned and colored digitally, and then I add the titles and ingredient arrows. It's a fairly well streamlined process now.”

Even if a bake goes horribly wrong, Hovey said his “illustrations are a representation of what the bakers hope to create. Even if the bakers don't produce what they’ve intended to I have a degree of artistic license to make them look good.”

8. THE CONTESTANTS DON’T INTERACT WITH THE JUDGES VERY MUCH.

“They very much tried to keep it unbiased,” Quinn said about how the bakers don’t spend much time interacting with the judges. “We saw a lot more of Mel and Sue. Mary and Paul would purely come in to do what we called the royal tour—where they'd come in and find out what you were making, and then they'd come back in for judging. You're not in the same hotel having sleepovers! You form more of a relationship after the show when you see them at things like BBC Good Food or whatever—but they need to keep their distance [on the show]. They're there as judges."

9. MAKING SURE THAT THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGE IS ACTUALLY POSSIBLE IS ONE PERSON'S JOB.

Sandi Toksvig in 'The Great British Bake Off'
Netflix

Another vital behind-the-scenes role is that of the food researcher. It’s down to them to make sure that the elaborate concoction the judges have decided the bakers have to whip up is actually possible, given the ingredients, instructions, and time the bakers will be allowed.

The tent presents its own challenges, too, because it could be hot or cold, depending on the weather, and it tends to have quite a wobbly floor, which can make delicate decorating work trickier than it might otherwise seem. “The tent is just mocked up, so the floor is really bumpy and bouncy because you’d got so many camera guys running around,” Quinn told the Irish Examiner.

10. THE SHOW GOT INTO SOME TROUBLE FOR ITS PARTNERSHIP WITH SMEG.

Part of GBBO’s homey charm has to do with the setup of the tent where the bakers do their cooking, and few appliances spell “retro” as well as a colorful Smeg refrigerator. A viewer fed up with what they described as “blatant product promotion” wrote to the Radio Times to complain, and an investigation was launched into the series’ agreement with Smeg. As BBC guidelines state that a series may "not accept free or reduced cost products" in return for "on-air or online credits, links or off-air marketing,” the broadcaster ended up having to write the company a check for all the times their product got some screen time.

11. THERE ARE NEVER ANY LEFTOVERS.

The judges only take a mouthful of every bake, which seems to leave an awful lot of leftover pastries, cakes, and ridiculously complicated bread sculptures. But don’t worry—none of it goes to waste. “The crew eats all the leftovers," Beedle told The Mirror. "We get some brought to us in the green room so we can taste each other's bakes, but it's only slithers."

12. HUNDREDS OF SEASON FIVE VIEWERS WROTE IN TO COMPLAIN ABOUT “SABOTAGE.”

Midway through season five, contestant Iain Watters had a bit of an issue with his Baked Alaska. Realizing that his ice cream had not yet set, he threw the entire dish into the trash rather than serve the judges a subpar dessert and was sent home as a result. Footage from the episode made is seem as if fellow contestant Diana Beard had removed his ice cream from the freezer. Beard left the show at just about the same time due to health issues, but some viewers (811, to be exact) smelled sabotage—and wrote in to the show’s producers to complain. Media watchdog group Ofcom looked into the matter, but said that they had assessed viewers’ complaints and “they do not raise issues warranting further investigation under Ofcom’s rules.”

Paul Hollywood took to Twitter to clear up what became known as “bingate,” tweeting: “Ice cream being left out of fridge last night for 40 seconds did not destroy Iain’s chances in the bake off, what did was his decision BIN.”

13. MARY BERRY WATCHED BREAKING BAD BACKSTAGE.

Although it looks pretty nonstop on screen, there’s quite a bit of downtime during the show’s filming days. Especially for the show’s judges and hosts. Former judge Mary Berry had one unique way of passing the time: binge-watching Breaking Bad. “It’s shocking,” Berry told The Telegraph. “Then you get into it and you think: ‘Have I seen episode four or five?’ You get hooked. It’s better than motor racing, which [my husband] Paul watches—though I’d prefer Downton Abbey.” She’d apparently rope former hosts Mel and Sue into watching it with her on occasion. What better way to relax during a long day of baking than by watching Walter White, umm, baking?

14. THE APPLICATION FORM IS NO JOKE.

Fancy your chances in the Bake Off tent? If you’ve been inspired by the show and reckon you could nab a couple of Star Baker titles, brace yourself: The application form is a whopping eight pages long, and it’s full of probing questions. As well as giving details of your hobbies, lifestyle, and level of experience with various types of baked goods, it also asks applicants to describe their baking style, and answer a couple of existential-sounding questions.

"It's a long application form. I think it's designed to put some people off, essentially," fourth season contestant Beca Lyne-Pirkis said. "It asks you about everything you have done, good and bad. It's designed to get information about your character, stories, mishaps and successes."

Still fancy applying? Though submissions are not open at the moment, you can keep your eyes open for when the next batch of contestants are being accepted here.

15. THE AUDITION PROCESS IS EVEN MORE GRUELING.

If you happen to make it through the application process, the audition process is even more difficult. “Every person who makes it into the marquee has passed a rigorous series of tests,” GBBO creator and executive producer Anna Beattie told The Telegraph. In addition to the application form, The Telegraph reported that there is “a 45-minute telephone call with a researcher, bringing two bakes to an audition in London, a screen test and an interview with a producer. If they get through that, there is a second audition baking two recipes … in front of the cameras, and an interview with the show psychologist to make sure they can cope with being filmed for up to 16 hours a day.”

Mayochup Is Now an Official Condiment

Heinz
Heinz

Like it or not, Heinz Mayochup is on its way to a store near you. As Us Weekly reports, bottles of the blended sauce—made from mayonnaise and ketchup, naturally—will be available for purchase later this month.

Heinz's announcement of the condiment back in April was met with mixed reactions. Many were thrilled. Others repulsed. And people from Utah were pretty miffed that Heinz took credit for their beloved "fry sauce," a condiment that was reportedly invented by a local restaurant chain in 1948. (In addition to fries, the ketchup and mayo combo pairs well with burgers and can be used to make a variety of dips.)

Mayonnaise haters (we're looking at you, Millennials) may find Mayochup less than appealing, but at least it's better than Heinz's green ketchup, right? Mayochup also seems to be doing well in the United Arab Emirates—the only country where it's currently being sold. In April, Heinz took a poll on social media to see if there was any interest in bringing the condiment stateside, and 500,000 people voted in favor of the move. This week, the company launched another Twitter poll to see if there's similar interest in the UK.

If you happen to live in Culver City, California; Chicago, Illinois; or Brooklyn, New York, you may have the chance to sample it before anyone else in the country. These cities—preselected by Heinz for being the most "passionate" on social media about bringing Mayochup to the U.S.—are in the running to win a "food truck takeover." Free samples of fries and Mayochup will be dished out to passersby and diehard Heinz fans. People are now taking to Twitter to vote (using the template #MayochupYOURCITY), but act fast—voting ends September 18.

[h/t Us Weekly]

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