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Last year saw some high-profile food recalls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised us to toss all of our romaine lettuce thanks to not one but two widespread E. coli outbreaks. Cereal and crackers were pulled from store shelves over concerns of Salmonella. And cream cheese was recalled for Listeria. If it seems like more of our food is being yanked from the shelves than ever, that's because it is: in recent years, we've seen about 676 recalls annually, a big jump from the 304 annual recalls we saw a decade ago. Alarming numbers, for sure. But does that mean our food is less safe?
Short answer: Probably not.
Food Recall Numbers
First, consider why recalls are on the upswing. Let's start with the groundbreaking legislation enacted in 2011, endowing the Food and Drug Administration with new authority to issue its own recalls or shut down a company's production operations. Food manufacturers aren't waiting for that to happen. "The culture has changed," says Renee Boyer, Ph.D., a professor of food science and technology at Virginia Tech University. "Most companies are being more proactive than ever to ensure they don't produce items that might cause foodborne illness—and are recalling suspected foods prematurely, before they make anybody sick." Or before the FDA steps in.
And while recalls have increased, the number of reported illnesses has not. Each year, food poisoning strikes one in six Americans. Sounds like a lot, but those numbers haven't really changed for more than a decade. Plus, today's stats are considerably more accurate than past figures. Doctors now have tests that help them diagnose food-related illnesses faster and more precisely. As a result, cases that would have once gone undetected are now being counted.
It's also important to note that germs like E. coli account for less than half (41 percent) of all food recalls. More recalls are now spurred by undeclared allergens than by bad bugs. So while 2017 saw 456 food recalls, 218 of them were prompted by undeclared milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soybeans, peanuts and tree nuts. And another 42 were linked to "foreign materials," such as glass, plastic, metal—or in one case, pieces of golf balls—that inadvertently made their way into food products. (Still dangerous for people with food allergies, or as a choking hazard, but not because of illness-causing bacteria.)
How Recalls are Reported
One of the biggest reasons our food feels less safe is the massive shift in the way that outbreaks are identified and reported. "Our surveillance systems are quite incredible," says Kali Kniel, Ph.D., a professor of microbial food safety at the University of Delaware. Now, laboratories can connect the dots between individual cases across multiple states and show that they're part of a larger issue, not isolated incidents. So, today's outbreaks seem bigger, when in reality we just have a more accurate sense of the scale of the problem. This also influences our impression of the situation: an isolated recall might only make local news, but string them together and now you have a coast-to-coast problem and media coverage. "Between TV, radio and the internet, we're getting information from so many more sources than we used to," Boyer adds. "That adds to the perception that foodborne illness is on the rise."
All together, this creates a perfect storm for fear. But the truth is the United States ranks sixth out of 17 developed countries for food safety, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada (a not-for-profit economic research group). "When you look at all the food that's available to us and how much of it is consumed without illness, our food supply is incredibly safe," says Kniel. That's because of all those recalls, not in spite of them.