In the slideshow below we'll be keeping track of the latest major U.S. food -- and food-related -- recalls.
According to the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, food-borne illnesses in the U.S. cause over 5,000 deaths a year, as Time magazine recently mentioned in a piece on on the process of recalling tainted food. In that piece they also gave some interesting answers to questions one might have about food recalls.
For one, all of the recalls below are voluntary recalls -- amazingly, the FDA does not have the power to directly recall products, except for infant formula, which required specific legislation in the 1980s.
So what is the process for recalling these products? Time writes:
When the CDC gathers enough information to link an outbreak to a food product (for example, if everyone sickened by a particular strain of salmonella ate the same store-bought product), it contacts the Department of Agriculture (USDA) if it's meat or poultry or the FDA if it's anything else. The organization then tries to find the source of the problem by inspecting farms, plants and packaging centers. "Ideally we try to say, 'This is the cause, and this is what happened," explains Roberta Wagner, acting deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "That's of course a very clean scenario. It doesn't always happen like that."
Once the source of tainted food is (hopefully) identified, the manufacterer hopefully recalls it:
"In many cases they do agree [to a recall]," says Cecilia Wolyniak, the FDA's consumer-safety officer. "But there are some cases where they won't and then we do what's called an FDA requested recall, where we send them a notification and say we expect them to take action." If that doesn't work, the FDA will seize the product itself. [...]
"The lack of mandatory recall always surprises people," says Mike Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. "It'd help if we had the authority to back [our recall requests] up." The FDA is currently seeking that authority and increased manpower; right now the organization has only about 450 people authorized to do on-site inspections of the over 156,000 FDA-regulated firms. At present, the FDA tries to inspect food facilities once a year if they make easily contaminated products like seafood and every few years if they don't. Congress has been trying to overhaul the food-safety system since last June -- to increase the FDA's power and require more frequent inspections -- but efforts have been stymied by the health care and energy reform debates. Theoretically, the Senate should vote on a bill this year.
And what happens to the recalled food?
It's usually sent back to the manufacturer and then disposed of while a representative from the FDA or the USDA watches. Or asks to watch. Or sometimes just receives paperwork about it. With only so many inspectors available, sometimes, there's just not enough time to send someone to watch 15 million pounds of SpaghettiOs get destroyed.