Food recalls during the COVID Quarter came with ‘glaring food safety headlines’

In the B2B market, Bannockburn, IL-based Stericycle’s hand-holding of regulated businesses puts it in a unique position for monitoring almost all recall activity.

And as a result, Stericycle is also well-equipped to offer some insight about the second quarter, ending June 30. It is being remembered as the COVID-19 Quarter because it bore the brunt of the collapse of economic activity because of the pandemic.

Along with its review of second-quarter recall data, Stericycle adds some July data previews.

“Regulatory oversight of food that lapsed earlier in the year began to boom in the middle months as consumer fears rose with continued meat and produce recalls that was capped off with the first-ever nationwide FDA recalls of onions and peaches,” notes Chris Harvey, vice president of crisis solutions at Stericycle Expert Solutions.  

In fact, after the second quarter ended, USDA recalls inched upward in July, and are expected to rise further through the end of the year as attacks directed at the FDA and USDA continue to make headlines, Harvey says.

Stericycle reports that its most recent Recall Index includes findings on how COVID-19 impacts food safety, safety risks that top FDA and USDA priorities, and how FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” blueprint will impact the recall process.

“Some of the most glaring food safety headlines of the second quarter were fueled by food safety and public health advocates who continue to pressure companies and regulators alike for more safeguards,” the Recall Index reports. “We’re used to seeing their perspective in the media, but in some cases, they’ve turned it up a notch.”

For example, it cited Consumer Reports disclosure of potentially harmful levels of arsenic in bottled water manufactured by Whole Foods. Stericycle also pointed to the FDA’s relaxing labeling requirements in light of COVID-19, only to experience media criticism from Food Allergy Research and Education. And during the quarter, vegans at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sought meat testing for SARS-CoV-2 and labeling to disclose industry employees were being sickened and killed. 

While some of their concerns can seem far-fetched, the truth is that when they make headlines, they fuel consumer fear,” the Stericycle report says .“Fear that permeates amid a steady drumbeat of recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks, and limited inspections of food production facilities.”

Stericycle splits food recalls into two categories: FDA and USDA. The FDA-related recalls totaled 7.8 million units in 79 events, which were down 44 percent and 11.5 percent from Q1, respectively.

The USDA was involved in 9 recalls representing 672,000 pounds for a quarterly increase of 2,882 percent. Poultry products dominated the USDA recalls, which accounted for 44.4 percent of the events and 73.9 percent of recalled product weight.

Undeclared allergens accounted for 43 percent of the FDA recall events. It was the 12th consecutive quarter that undeclared allergens were the top cause for recalls, and one-third of those were for undeclared milk.

One French Onion dip was responsible for 86.8 percent of all the FDA recalled units for undeclared allergens. Foreign material caused 69.6 percent of all the pounds involved in USDA recalls.

More from the Stericycle second-quarter report:

  • “FDA recall activity dropped by 44 percent in the second quarter to 79 recalls. Those recalls, however, impacted more than 7.8 million units, representing a decrease of just 11.5 percent.  The decline in the number of events is not surprising given the agency’s limited regulation oversight activities over the last four months. In fact, the number of recalls was just over 20 percent lower in the first quarter of 2019 when the government shuttered for just one month.”
  • “Undeclared allergens remained the top cause of FDA food recalls for the 12th consecutive quarter, accounting for 43 percent of recalls. Of those 34 recalls, more than one-third contained undeclared milk. Mold was the top cause of recalled units for the first time in our tracking of this data, accounting for 86.8 percent of recalled units. This was the result ozone recall of French Onion dip impacting nearly all mold-related units recalled.”
  • “Bacteria contamination was the cause of 13 recalls in the second quarter compared to 36 events in the first quarter. In both cases, listeria was the most common contaminant. This is the fewest recalls due to bacterial contamination that we seen in more than a decade of monitoring this data.”
  • “Produce was the top product category impacted in terms of events at 19 percent; prepared food recalls impacted themes units at 88.1 percent.

Going forward,  Stericycle reports that “FDA food recalls remained on a downward trend in July, with just 26 recalls. Undeclared allergens were the leading cause with 12 recalls, while the presence of foreign material accounted for five recalls. 

The Stericycle report includes these comments about USDA:

  • “USDA recalls saw a slight uptick despite limitations in regulatory oversight, inching up to nine recalls in the second quarter. Recalls impacted about 672,000 pounds, representing a quarter-over-quarter increase of 2882.7 percent.”
  • “Quarterly recall activity remains down significantly with an average of 7.5 recalls a quarter compared with an average quarterly volume of more than 30 recalls over the last three years.”
  • “Foreign material and no inspection were each the cause of one-third of recalls, while 69.6 percent  of pounds recalled were because of foreign material.”
  • “USDA recalls in the second quarter most often impacted poultry products, representing 44.4 percent of all recall events and 73.9 percent of pounds.”

The USDA recalls inched upward in July with 4 recalls, all due to the lack of inspection. “This could signal significant gaps in regulatory oversight that are resulting in missed food safety issues,” Stericycle says.

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