What Is a Recall, and Why Do They Happen? An Expert Explains

Updated: Jun. 11, 2024

Data show recalls on groceries and consumer goods have surged since 2022. Here's the official essence of what a recall means, the patterns behind the increase, and how to keep you and your family safe.

A recall is a preventive action that manufacturers or regulatory agencies take to remove products from the market that may threaten public health and safety. In 2023, such measures led to the recall of over 300 food products after 12 outbreaks caused 1,100 illnesses and resulted in six deaths, as detailed in a report by the US PIRG Education Fund.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates about 78% of the US food supply, which encompasses all food products except for those like meat, poultry, and certain fish and egg products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Recalls under the USDA’s jurisdiction increased by 31% in 2023 compared to the previous year.

Recalls are typically initiated when prohibited substances are detected in products. In 2023, allergens caused nearly half of all recalls, while harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria accounted for more than a quarter. It is important to note that health officials believe the actual number of affected individuals is likely higher than what is reported, as many cases of food poisoning resolve without medical treatment or are not formally diagnosed, which means they go unreported.

Given these risks, staying informed and vigilant about product recalls is crucial for your safety. Ahead, find what you need to know about the recall process and the steps to take if you find yourself affected.

What is a recall?

A product recall occurs when an item, such as a food product, does not meet the safety standards set by regulatory agencies like the FDA or USDA. This means the product could potentially be harmful. A recalled product can pose significant health risks, particularly to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, individuals with weakened immune systems, or those undergoing medical treatment.

Recalls can occur for several reasons, including:

  • Contamination with harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
  • Presence of dangerous foreign objects like glass, metal shards, plastic pieces, or rodent droppings.
  • Incorrect labeling that omits a major allergen, such as peanuts or shellfish.

Recalls extend beyond food products. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) does research, training, and enforcement on safety standards related to broader product categories like apparel (such as children’s clothing that violates flammability standards), furniture, toys and recreational equipment. Meanwhile, the FDA also manages recalls involving a wide variety of consumer items, including cosmetics, pet foods, medications, medical devices, biologics (like vaccines), radiation-emitting products, and veterinary drugs.

One exception consumers might practice extra judiciousness with is related to medication recalls. Chris Snyder, PharmD, a registered pharmacist with the Cleveland Clinic, offers this important advice: “It may be more harmful to stop taking the medication. Take the medication as prescribed and contact your doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible.”

The FDA says that in 1969, they established regulations known as Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) to ensure that products are manufactured safely and consistently. These regulations were updated in 2015 with additional safeguards according to the requirements of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which considers the different risks associated with various types of food.

The government recommends using lot numbers to aid in the tracking and recall process. These numbers help monitor specific batches of products from their production to their sale locations, facilitating identifying and recalling a particular batch if a problem is detected.

How to interpret the level of potential hazard from a recalled product

The FDA explains that a recall is typically categorized into one of three government-assigned classifications based on the level of risk the product poses:

  • Class I Recall: This is the most severe recall type, issued for products that could cause serious health issues or death.
  • Class II Recall: This type involves products that may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health effects.
  • Class III Recall: This is for products that are unlikely to cause health problems but fail to comply with FDA labeling or manufacturing regulations.

Can recalled items still be sold?

It is illegal for retailers to sell recalled products. When a recall is announced, stores must immediately remove the affected items from their shelves. Selling recalled products can result in serious legal consequences, such as fines and sanctions. To ensure the products you’re buying are safe, you can visit the following websites:

Most major retail and grocery chains publish recalls on their websites. If you’re a regular visitor to Walmart, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, or others, you can check their sites or subscribe to email lists to receive notification of product recalls.

Can you ignore a product recall?

It is essential not to ignore a product recall. Acting on recall announcements helps protect yourself and your family from potential health hazards.

While not every recalled product poses an immediate health risk, the potential long-term consequences of using or consuming unsafe products can be severe. By staying informed about recalls and adhering to safety guidelines, consumers contribute to enforcing food safety regulations and help ensure that manufacturers and suppliers adhere to high safety and quality standards.

What do I do if I bought or consumed a recalled product?

Here’s what you should do if you have consumed a product that was later recalled:

  • Assess the type of recall: Understand the reason for the recall, and follow all instructions to determine necessary steps. For instance, if the recall is due to an allergen, you should monitor for any allergic reactions.
  • Contact your healthcare provider: If you experience any symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, vomiting, and confusion, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider immediately.
  • Report your experience: Reporting to the FDA’s MedWatch or the CDC can help authorities better understand the impact of the recalled product and prevent further issues.

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