The Question: How can I know if my food is safe to eat after a specific product recall?
The Answer: Many of us shed a few tears over the recent Sabra hummus recall (even though we are perfectly capable of making our own at home), but that sadness quickly transformed into anxiety when we looked inside our refrigerators and saw the potentially tainted culprit sitting there on the shelf.
To assuage any fears, we asked John Swartzberg, M.D., a clinical professor at the University of California at Berkeley, to walk us through the process of determining if our favorite dip was still safe to eat.
The first step, according to Swartzberg, is to go to the Food and Drug Administration's website and find the official report for the recalled product you're worried about. Each report will list recalled items with their product codes, which are typically categorized by the Universal Product Code (the number adjacent to the barcode) or the Stock Keeping Unit (a specific number that would only be valid at the store where the product is being sold). They will also include the recalled products' use-by dates, and the geographical areas affected.
"The recall is not based on the use-by dates, though," said Swartzberg. "If the product is within the use-by date, it should still be recalled. This makes sense, because the product was contaminated prior to purchase and no matter how 'fresh' the product is, it still may be contaminated."
After cross-checking these details, you should have a strong sense of whether your food product is safe to eat or needs to be trashed right away. But as far as avoiding potential problems before learning such details about a food recall, the consumer is at an automatic disadvantage.
"There's nothing the consumer can do prior to learning about the recall," said Dr. Swartzberg. "Discarding or returning the product to the store is all that can be done."
In the case of this specific hummus recall, while there was no evidence that it caused any consumer illness, the product's routine sample last month revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Consuming such bacteria can lead to listeriosis, a serious infection, and Dr. Swartzberg recommends that anyone who has consumed a listeria-laden food should let their physician know as soon as possible.
"Listeria survives well at cool temperatures," he said. "Most bacteria and fungi do not -- that's why we refrigerate. Healthy people are at low risk for disease, but it can happen. Those at greatest risk for disease are the elderly, immunocompromised and pregnant."
To learn more about the best food safety practices, visit UC Berkeley's Wellness website.
"Ask Healthy Living" is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.