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.

3 Cold Coffee Treats To Beat The Heat

Mental Floss Video
Mental Floss Video

Loving coffee is a year-round activity, but in the dog days of summer you may not be in the mood for a steaming hot cup of joe. That’s why we asked Eamon Rockey, Director of Beverage Studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, to help us concoct three delicious cold coffee treats.

Coffee tonic is a simple, refreshing alternative when you get sick of plain old iced coffee. Granita di caffè—basically a grown-up snow cone— is an Italian classic. And Eamon’s “milk and honey” take on a Greek frappè is a caffeinated milkshake with just enough sweetness to be addictive.

The recipes all start with cold brew concentrates, which are increasingly available at grocery stores and ensure a consistent product from start to finish. You could also use refrigerated coffee leftover from the morning or any other (preferably strong) iced coffee; you may sacrifice a bit of consistency and flavor, but something tells us they’ll still be delicious.

Coffee Tonic Recipe

Ingredients:

Grady’s Cold Brew Concentrate (or your preferred substitute)
Tonic Water
Ice
Lemon Peel

Instructions:

  1. Pour equal amounts of cold brew concentrate and tonic water into glass.
  2. Add ice and stir.
  3. “Express” (i.e. squeeze to release essential oils) a large piece of lemon peel into glass
  4. Garnish with lemon and serve.

Granita Di Caffè Recipe

Ingredients:

Red Thread Cold Brew Concentrate With a Hint of Chocolate (or your preferred substitute)
Simple Syrup (Optional)
Berries and/or Whipped Cream to Garnish

Instructions:

  1. Pour cold brew concentrate into a freezer safe vessel
  2. Optionally, for a sweeter treat, add ¼ cup simple syrup (50 percent water, 50 percent sugar) and stir
  3. Place into a freezer and let nearly freeze (1-2 hours)
  4. Break up any ice crystals with a fork and place back in freezer for roughly 30 minutes
  5. Repeat step four two or more times, as needed, until the mixture is all icy granules
  6. Alternately, skip steps three to six and leave coffee mixture until frozen (2-3 hours). Scrape vigorously with a fork. You may sacrifice some of the light texture of the other method, but the process is considerably simpler.
  7. Serve with berries or (ideally fresh) whipped cream

“Milk and Honey” Greek Frappè Recipe

Ingredients:

One Half of a Vanilla Bean
3 Tbsp. Heavy Cream
3 Tbsp. Honey
3 Tbsp. Milk
4 oz. Grady’s Cold Brew Concentrate (or your preferred substitute)
Splash of soda water (optional)
Ice

Instructions:

  1. Scrape half of a vanilla bean and add to heavy cream
  2. Make whipped cream by mixing with whisk/hand mixer, or by shaking vigorously in cocktail shaker
  3. Add honey to milk and stir to combine
  4. Add milk/honey mixture to whipped cream and stir
  5. Pour cold brew concentrate and a splash of soda water into glass
  6. Add ice
  7. Top with half of the whipped cream/milk/honey mixture and stir
  8. Garnish with the leftover vanilla bean pod 

14 Freshly-Brewed Facts About Starbucks

Starbucks
Starbucks

When Howard Schultz visited Milan, Italy in 1983 and realized the city was home to more than 1500 coffee bars, a light bulb went off in his head. Four years later, the ambitious Schultz acquired Starbucks—which had previously only sold ground coffee in bags, with no single servings—and proceeded to turn it from a six-store Seattle operation into a global phenomenon. Unlock the secrets of your home away from home with these 14 frothy facts.

1. Starbucks has a ban on smells.

Because aroma is so crucial to the Starbucks experience, Schultz—the company's longtime CEO who retired in 2018 and is now its Chairman Emeritus—laid down the law early on: Nothing can interfere with the smell of their freshly-ground coffee. The stores banned smoking in the late 1980s, years before the practice was commonplace; employees are alsao asked not to wear perfume or cologne [PDF].

2. The Starbucks mermaid used to show nipple.


Jim Forest, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

The siren of the famous Starbucks logo is intended to represent the seductive power of coffee, with her hair tastefully covering any hint of immodesty. But when Starbucks was still a regional chain in 1970s Seattle, their logo was far more candid: The mermaid had fully-exposed breasts. Some customers commented on it, but it didn’t become scandalous until the company began making deliveries and had to put their signage on trucks. Reluctant to traffic in portable nudity, the logo was revised.

3. An immunologist cracked the Starbucks coffee code.

Infectious disease specialist Don Valencia was essentially just goofing off in 1990 when he developed a coffee bean extract that smelled and tasted just like the real thing. After neighbors couldn’t tell the difference between his sample and fresh coffee, he tried it out on a barista. Eventually, word got to Starbucks executives, who hired Valencia in 1993. Using his discovery to branch out into retail sales, Starbucks quickly became a top-seller of bottled coffee and super-premium ice cream—for a time, they even outsold pint-sized king Häagen-Dazs.

4. There have been Starbucks stores made out of old shipping containers.

A Starbucks store made out of a shipping container
Starbucks

In a monument to the company’s eco-friendly attitude, several stores built out of retired shipping containers have opened since 2011. Some use run-off drains to feed rainwater to nearby vegetation; others use local materials such as discarded wooden fencing to complete the job. The recycled storefronts are typically drive-thru only, but video cameras allow patrons to see a friendly barista's face. At 1000 square feet, they’re also smaller than a typical store—and Starbucks has every intention of using that tiny footprint to burrow its way into locations previously thought to be too small to lease.

5. Starbucks managers were forced to play with Mr. Potato Head.

Eager to ramp up efficiency in the face of stiffer competition in 2009, Starbucks dispatched executive Scott Heydon for some updated managerial training. To demonstrate how employees can cut down on idle time behind the counter, Heydon instructed managers to assemble a Mr. Potato Head toy and then put him back in his box in under 45 seconds. At least one supervisor was able to pick up the scattered pieces and re-assemble the spud in under 16 seconds.

6. The Starbucks CIA location is as secretive as you’d expect.

Man drinking coffee and using his laptop
hitmanphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Like most office buildings, the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia runs on caffeine. But it doesn’t run like a typical Starbucks: Baristas undergo background checks and aren't allowed to leave their posts without a CIA escort. Customer names cannot be called out or written on cups due to security concerns. Despite the precautions, it’s still a social atmosphere: According to The Washington Post, one key member of the team that assisted in locating Osama bin Laden was recruited there.

7. The Starbucks employee dress code is very specific.

When Schultz opened his line of Il Giornale espresso bars in 1985, he mandated employees wear the bow ties and crisp white shirts common in Italy. The current dress code [PDF] has relaxed on the Pee-Wee attire but still insists on a certain kind of conformity. Rings cannot have stones; brightly-colored purple or pink hair is not welcome; untucked shirts can’t expose your midsection when bending over; ear gauges should be less than 10mm. Think you're going to sport a face tattoo or septum ring? Mister, the only thing you’re brewing is trouble.

8. California has a Starbucks ski-thru.

Skiers in Squaw Valley, California looking for a caffeine fix don’t have to take off their equipment: the Starbucks at the Gold Coast Resort is open to visitors via a Ski-Thru. They also take orders from the aerial lift. What could be better?

9. Nonfat milk resulted in a Starbucks corporate standoff.

When Howard Behar came to Starbucks as an executive in 1989, he was dismayed to find that many customers had filled out comment cards voicing their desire for nonfat milk. But Schultz and his team had decided they didn’t like the taste and that nonfat wasn’t authentically Italian. Behar argued that customers should get whatever they wanted. Store managers protested, but when Schultz personally witnessed a customer walk out over the lack of options, he relented. Today, it's estimated that half of the company’s cappuccinos and lattes are frothed without fat.

10. You can get a Butterbeer frappucCino at Starbucks (if you know the right way to ask).


RosieTulips, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

The preferred thirst-quencher for Harry Potter fans, Butterbeer isn’t really available outside of the books or the Universal Studios attraction—but you can get a pretty good approximation by requesting a Frappucino with caramel syrup, caramel drizzle, and toffee nut syrup.

11. The round tables at Starbucks may help you feel less lonely.

Feeling self-conscious about sitting in a Starbucks by yourself? Don’t be: the round tables are there to help. The company believes that circular dining areas can make a space feel less empty when compared to the stern edges of a rectangular or square table. They don’t want you to feel alone. So, so alone.

12. The Disney Starbucks has magic chalkboards.

When Starbucks opened at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida, some of the company’s trademark features were tweaked to fit their magical affiliation. The chalkboard was re-imagined as a 70-inch touch screen that can render illustrations in real time. Customers can also “draw” on the screen using their fingers, take selfies, and see what visitors in Disney’s Anaheim Starbucks are up to.

13. Some Starbucks stores have the technology for the greatest cup of coffee possible.

Starbucks cares a great deal about serving an excellent cup of coffee. Employees never let brewed pots sit for more than 30 minutes, and stores use no artificially-flavored grounds. The next giant leap in bean prep might be the Clover, a proprietary machine engineered by Stanford that costs $13,000 to install and uses a vacuum and elevator system to shoot coffee grounds upward with precision water temperatures the result is said to be a peerless experience. If you’re lucky enough to be near a store that has one, expect to pay up to $5 a cup.

14. Customers think Starbucks gives away newspapers. It doesn't. Now it doesn't sell them, either.

For years, many Starbucks locations provided newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to customers. That practice stopped in September 2019. Why? People believed the papers were provided as a gratuity and left them in a pile or walked out with a paper without paying.

Additional Sources: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time.

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