• Wednesday, October 5, 2011


    Nothing is more frightening than seeing a food recall or a food poisoning outbreak on the news or online. Especially when it is a very common product that you use all the time, like ground beef or cantaloupe.

    A recall means that a problem has been found with a food, and the company that produced it is removing it from the food supply. This can be for a variety of reasons from undeclared allergens (ingredients that people may be allergic to that are not on the label) to contamination with bacteria or a virus.

    One recent recall was due to people getting sick from E. coli O157:H7 infection in Ohio (not all recalls are associated with sicknesses). Scientists tested the ground beef in the people’s homes and found that it was contaminated with that strain of E. coli. Meat companies print codes on their packages that allow them to trace any package back to the plant where the meat was produced, the day, sometimes even the production line and the time of day. They can use that information and look at their records to know exactly what other packages may be contaminated with the same bacteria and where they were sold.

    How do I find out about recalls?
    Recalls of retail products are usually on the local news. If you see something being recalled on the news, you can usually find out more information by going to the news website or to the website of the company that is issuing the recall. Sometimes you may have to search ‘recall’ when you get to their site.

    I know that not everyone watches the news, so I have been thinking of some other ways to find out about recalls. Because I’m a meat scientist, the first thing I thought of was FSIS. The Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA has a recall page on their website that you could check, but this will only cover products under the jurisdiction of USDA (meat, poultry and eggs). The FDA also has a recall page, for FDA-regulated products (all food except meat, poultry, and eggs). Both of these pages offer an option to sign up for email alerts. The webpage http://www.foodsafety.gov/ combines the food safety information from FSIS and FDA and has US food recall information on one page where you can sign up for email alerts, follow them on facebook, twitter or as an RSS feed.

    How do I know if recalls apply to me?
    The recall information should give where the product was produced and the establishment number of the processing plant associated with the recall.

    What is an Establishment number?

    Every meat processing plant is given a specific number by the USDA. Any product that exits that plant has to have the Establishment number on its label.

    If the meat being recalled is red meat and is processed (most of it will be processed), it will have an inspection mark like the one in the middle of the picture above. If it is poultry (chicken, turkey) it will be like the one on the right.

    The recall will also tell you what states the recalled product was sold into. For meat and poultry recalls, they will tell you the ‘Best-by’ or ‘Freeze-by’ dates printed on the package. When meat is packaged in a plant, the processor prints a ‘Best-by’ or ‘Freeze-by’ date on the package that allow the consumer to know when to eat or freeze the product and to allow the processor to know when the product was made (simple subtraction).

    Sometimes these dates are hard to find. They are printed on the package as the meat goes down the production line, so they are simple, one-line, almost stamp-like. Sometimes they are on the bottom of a can or on the side of the package.

    Here are some pictures of some ham I had in the fridge. Notice the inspection mark with the establishment number on the bottom and the ‘best-by’ date at the top.
    See the establishment number
    in the little circle at the bottom?
    The use-by date

    Many times when a recall is issued, people will throw out things in their fridge or freezer just because it is the same type of product as what is being recalled. I think that is wasteful. 

    Here is an example: According to the Tyson website, a product recently recalled was 73% lean ground beef sold in 3- and 5-pound packages. The chubs had an Establishment Number of EST 245D and a Best-by or Freeze-by date of September 12. The product was produced on August 23. That means if you bought some 3- or 5-pound chubs of 73% ground beef between August 24 and September 12, you should go check your freezer and look to see if your ground beef has the EST 245D and a Best-by date or Freeze-by date of September 12.
    Chances are you didn’t buy 3 and 5-pound packages of 73% ground beef. Those are really big packages and it’s the fattiest ground beef available. If you buy leaner ground beef, it is not part of this recall. Don’t just throw out any ground beef you find.

    What about buying meat at the store?

    If a recall has been issued, you shouldn’t have to worry about that product still being on the shelf at a store. Stores are very diligent at getting recalled product removed from their shelves. Stores that have had recalled product will also have information about it on their website.

    What if I find recalled product in my fridge or freezer?

    If you find product in your house that has been recalled for any reason, you can take it back to the store. I would call the store first and ask about taking it back. You don’t want to show up with it and no one knows about the recall or what to do. I say this because after my year working in a grocery store, I realized that not everyone is always on the same page.

    If the recall was for some type of bacterial contamination (E. coli, salmonella, and Listeria have been the ones in the news lately), remember to treat the recalled product with care. If you find it in the fridge or the freezer, I would take it out, put it in a big, zip-lock-type freezer bag, make sure it sealed, and put it in the freezer. That will lessen the chances of it contaminating something else. Wash your hands thoroughly after you’ve handled it. Be sure to clean any surfaces it touched (plates for thawing, refrigerator shelves, counter top) with warm soapy water. When you do take it to the store, go directly there. Don’t leave it in your car for very long.

    If you have a question about a recall, you can always just ask me. If I don’t know the answer, I will find someone who does.

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