If you read the news, or at least the grocery news, the number of recall announcements might be enough to make your head spin -- or at least enough to convince you that basically everything is risky to eat, or that no shampoo or deodorant is safe to use.
We've reported on a number of these recalls this year, many posted by the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture or the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The guidance is typically along the lines of, "if you have a package in this lot, throw it away," or, "immediately dispose of the affected medication or potentially contaminated food."
But on the scale of things that are likely to harm you, food recalls are generally pretty low on the list. Food is often recalled, "out of an abundance of caution." Even if it seems like there's been an excess of announcements telling us to take action, that has less to do with the actual safety of products declining, and more to do with increased monitoring by the FDA. It's also a result of more tests by third-party pharmaceutical companies such as Valisure, the testing company that spurred the recall of many sunscreens, deodorants and shampoos. More awareness of what we're putting into our bodies sometimes means more recalls.
As food safety publication Eat This, Not That reports, new investigation tools and laws allowing more regulation by the FDA may also contribute to record-high numbers of recalls. The ease and speed of information sharing on social media, which can make headlines travel fast, also contributes to greater awareness of recalls as they're announced.
Because there will be many more recalls in our future, here's what you, the consumer, should do with that information.
What happens during a recall?
A recall means that a food or other item is being removed from the market because it's "in violation of" the FDA's or USDA's standards. The FDA regulates most foods, which is why company recalls are usually posted on the FDA's website. The USDA regulates meat and poultry.
While the FDA can mandate that a food company issue a recall, most are typically "voluntary recalls," which means the company decided to pull the affected product from the market themselves and is working in tandem with health officials. Voluntary recalls are common because it's usually in the best interest of a company, for public trust and compliance with regulators.
Why food is recalled
Common reasons a food is recalled include:
Contamination with a microorganism that can make people sick, such as listeria (either confirmed in a test of the food, or potential because a strain was detected at a plant that produces the food).
Foreign object contamination. For example, some food packages might contain pieces of metal, plastic, glass or something else non-edible, which was likely introduced during the production process.
Unlisted allergens that could harm someone with a severe food allergy (such as a failure to list eggs, peanuts or other foods on the package label).
Baby formula and pet food are also regulated by the FDA. The baby formula recall this year was particularly hard on parents and occurred because of contamination at one company's plant, which produced a big share of formula for the US market. Because formula is so strictly regulated for its nutritional content, getting a product up to health official standards isn't easy.
Why other products are recalled
Some personal products, such as dry shampoo and sunscreen, have been recalled in recent months because testing found trace amounts of a carcinogen, benzene, that may be harmful in large amounts or over long periods of use. The FDA allows a low level of benzene in certain products, and companies recall products that have levels higher than that level.
Drug recalls occur for different reasons, but they're also normally done out of an abundance of caution (that is, with no reports of illness, or very few reports). In the example of the recent blood pressure medication recall, two batches of a drug were pulled from the market because testing found too-high levels of an element that might be unsafe in large amounts or with long-term use.
Drug, cosmetic or personal care recalls are important because they hold companies responsible for what they're putting in their products. Valisure, the independent pharmaceutical company that detected too-high levels of carcinogens in sunscreen, hand sanitizer, medicine and other products, has petitioned the FDA to reevaluate the way it regulates.
What's an 'outbreak' when it comes to food?
The CDC tracks foodborne illness "outbreaks," notably E. coli and listeria, through genome sequencing. This is why the agency can detect an "outbreak strain" of listeria and link it to ice cream or a company that makes ice cream, to name one recent example.
The word outbreak brings to mind hundreds, thousands or even millions of sick people. But for foodborne illnesses, most people who eat infected food will only experience milder symptoms and not get tested at all in a medical setting.
Who needs to worry about recalls? How to weigh your risk
Paying attention to recalls can help you make informed choices about your body, whether that applies to shopping for a sunscreen or rummaging through your freezer. Your risk of getting sick or hurt from a recalled product depends on the reason for the recall, and your individual health or personal factors. But generally speaking, your risk of serious injury from a recall is usually low.
For example, on the recent blood pressure medication recall, no adverse events or illnesses linked to the drug were reported as of October 2022. By contrast, untreated high blood pressure (hypertension) can lead to heart disease, which kills one person every 34 seconds. That's why, even if you have a recalled medication, in most or all cases it's best to reach out to your doctor before stopping your regimen or changing it in any way.
In listeria recalls, people who are pregnant and those who have weakened immune systems, including older adults, are typically the ones who get sick enough to draw health official attention and spur the investigation. The CDC is currently investigating a listeria outbreak linked to deli meats and cheeses (no single deli or food has been identified yet), but only high-risk people are being specifically advised to cook their food thoroughly or avoid meats sold behind deli counters, if possible. This is in line with the blanket advice pregnant people get: Avoid foods that are more likely to harbor harmful bacteria like listeria, to be on the safe side.
People with severe or life-threatening food allergies will also benefit from checking the FDA's recall page, as foods are sometimes recalled because their packaging leaves out an ingredient or allergen warning.
What about cosmetic recalls? Like some medication recalls, the concern is usually about a trace amount of some substance that could be linked to cancer in people, but only in very large amounts or over very long periods of time. (Think years.) That's all to say that using half your bottle of sunscreen and then learning it's been recalled over benzene is likely no reason to panic.
Even if it does take time for risk to mount in many recalled products, increased testing and consumer awareness improves the transparency between company and shopper for things we rely on to be safe for daily use. The many lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and its baby powder is one example of how trust in a company can be eroded when customers depend on a product's safety for years or even decades. The lawsuits allege, in part, that Johnson & Johnson's talc-based powder has the potential to be contaminated and has contributed to some people's cancer. J&J has repeatedly defended the safety of its talc-based powder.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.