Here's What a Food Recall Is and Why One Happens

Don't get scared. Get smart.

Asian woman with medical face masks doing grocery shopping for fresh fruit in supermarket
Photo: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

You've just received an email or seen on the news that a food you've recently bought or eaten has been recalled. As manufacturers and food producers are more in touch with consumers than ever before, you might even have received a personalized email outlining a newly recalled item before you hear about it on the news.

So, what should you do? Does a recall mean you're going to get sick?

The first step is to find out more about the actual recall. Sometimes, foods are recalled for simple reasons like being mislabelled. Other times, they may contain foreign substances or have packaging or processing issues. Additionally, some recalls only affect products in a certain area of the country.

As you consider the impact of a food or beverage recall, consider these steps:

  • Be reassured: Recalls are designed to remove dangerous or mislabeled foods from circulation. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitor foods and beverages for recall needs in multiple ways, and they work with food manufacturers and testing groups to find potential issues that could warrant a recall.
  • Read the recall: Recalls include information on the who, what, where, and when of the recall. The public is notified for Class 1 and Class 2 recalls, which involve either "reasonable" or "remote" health problems or consequences. A Class 3 recall does not cause "adverse health conditions."
  • Remember that not all recalls involve immediate danger: Recalls are designed to protect the largest population possible, but not every recall will impact people who have the food. Fo example, some recalls are issued because the contains an allergen that isn't declared on the packaging. If you don't have a food allergy or sensitivity to that ingredient, consuming or using the recalled item may not be dangerous. But if you do, you should avoid the food.
  • Check the dates on your receipts or online purchases: The recalling company will give specific details about when the items were sold and where.
  • Check the barcode and "best by" or expiration dates to match recall information: A recall may state all products made between certain dates in certain states. If you still aren't sure if your specific product is included, take it back into the store you bought it at.
  • Follow disposal/refund options: Grocery stores and other outlets are alerted to recalls when consumers are so that they are prepared to process refunds and exchanges.
  • Sign up for newsletters and information at your favorite food manufacturers and producers: Food and beverage manufacturers that send out newsletters and have an online presence will post recall information in the same way that a technology company does.

Tip: Signing up for loyalty clubs and shopping online at big box stores, grocery stores, and warehouse stores can help keep you aware of recalls. The stores communicate with the government agencies doing recalls and can pass the information on to you easily through digital channels.

How Do I Find Out About Recalls?

There are many ways to stay alert for recalls: social media, on the news or in print, emails from stores or manufacturers, and] email notifications from sites like Major grocery stores and warehouse stores will often send updates on recalls of products that you've purchased in stores or online.

Should I Keep, Toss, or Get a Refund?

Follow the instructions for food recalls just as you would for other kinds of recalls. If the manufacturer, grower, or store says you need to throw the food away or get a refund, do that. Even if it doesn't feel like you've been or will be affected, recalls are sent for a reason: to protect the consumer from adverse health results.

Tip: If you're unsure if you have a recalled product, consult] the store's customer service department. They can check the barcode to see if it's included in the recall.

You can also call the manufacturer or producer's customer support line and ask if your food or beverage item is included. If in doubt, the best advice is to throw it out. You don't want to take a chance of someone in your household finding and consuming the food or beverage and getting sick as a result.

What Reactions Can Recalled Foods Cause?

  • Allergic reactions: While a mislabelled product may seem less serious than a foreign object or bacterial infection, it can actually be very harmful. If a product contains undeclared nuts or milk, someone with serious allergies could have an anaphylactic response.
  • Stomach distress: While some recalled products may cause gastrointestinal issues for the general population, immunocompromised people, children, and the elderly are at risk for more severe reactions including stomach aches, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death.
  • Physical damage such as chipped teeth are a potential negative result from foods and beverage that contain foreign particles, such as glass or metal.

Why May Foods Be Recalled?

Foods and beverages can be recalled for a wide range of reasons. The FSIS, FDA, and CDC monitor food growth, processing, and packaging to make sure that the food pathway is safe from potential health issues.

For example, recent flour recalls affected not just the flour itself but also many products made with flour. Not only was the flour bags on the shelf recalled, products like cookie dough and cake mixes, which were made with the potentially contaminated flour, had to be recalled, too.

  • foreign matter in the food (glass, sand, rocks, metal, wood or other debris)
  • mold or other invasive materials
  • inaccurate expiration dates
  • undeclared ingredients like soy, gluten, milk, and nuts
  • undeclared allergens
  • mislabelling or lack of label
  • incorrect instructions for preparing
  • packaged under the wrong conditions
  • not heated/cooled enough
  • meat prepared incorrectly or with bone fragments included
  • disease or infection, such as E. coli, Listeria, botulism, Salmonella

Restaurant and Prepared Food Recalls

Food and beverage recalls extend beyond your home. Many food service companies and restaurant suppliers utilize the same foods and beverages that you do.

The Chi Chi's restaurant chain closed partially because of an outbreak of illness due to scallions. Recent onion recalls due to Salmonella affected onions not only sold to consumers but also to restaurants and meal kit companies.

Tip: If you know a certain type of food or beverage has been recalled in your area for home use, check to see if restaurants are also affected. Restricting your use of that product temporarily when eating out can be reassuring.

What Happens After a Recall?

So, you've thrown away a recalled product or gotten a refund. Or you've dealt with negative results from consuming the product. What's next? It is up to you when you feel comfortable consuming the recalled product again.

Most recalled products were made in short window of time, and the companies are typically very good at identifying those spans of time. Anything before or after that window can be considered safe.

Also, the recall may only affect a specific week of production because the company evaluates their processes once the issue is identified. Plants and production equipment are examined to not only stop whatever the contamination or mislabeling issue was but also to plan for safer and more watchful processes in the future.


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