Food Recalls Are Decreasing For A Mysterious Reason

By Joseph Farago | 2 weeks ago

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The pandemic-engulfed United States experienced fewer food recalls than in years prior, and no one is sure why.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s data determined that 2020 had a quarter less recalls than in 2019. While manufacturers sped up processing for grocery stores as restaurants paused indoor dining, the influx of food distribution didn’t affect the average recall rate.

The number of food recalls in 2020 and 2021 had also diminished for the Food and Drug Association. Though the decrease of recalls wasn’t as steep, data shows the FDA recalled fewer products during the pandemic. Experts around the country are struggling to find out how this occurred. With manufacturers trying to keep up with grocery-store demand, many safety experts wonder why the food recall number hasn’t increased instead. The prolonged stay of COVID might be the unexpected culprit in these odd statistics.

Some experts state COVID-19’s effect on the economy as the reason for the food recall decline. With more products funneled into grocery stores, some suggest safety regulations were reinvigorated, making sure food was safer for consumers. Others indicated that COVID-19 harmed these regulations, hypothesizing that companies could’ve let restrictions slide to get more products out the door.

With both positive and negative reasons for the food-recall shrinkage, a lack of foodborne illness cases reported in 2021 supports the former. No known spike in reported foodborne illness cases means no considerable disregard from food manufactures. The difficulty in pinpointing what has led to the decreasing statistics has varying elements. Due to the pandemic, changes in industries across the country leave experts befuddled on what caused fewer recalls.

A food science professor from Rutgers University, Don Schaffner, agrees saying, “If you’re doing an experiment, you need to change one variable at a time. Here, we’ve changed a whole lot of variables at once.” Industries affected through multiple avenues mean infinite answers for why food recalls have diminished.

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COVID-19 had a significant impact on how Americans consume and buy food. More money spent in grocery stores meant more demand for store-bought food. The FDA and USDA, two separate organizations, combined their pandemic responses for the first time, acting as one government agency. In early 2020 the FDA suspended inspections on foreign food items coming from other countries, another possible culprit for fewer food recalls last year. This amendment only lasted through April and was not enforced with products deemed “mission-critical.”

Food recalls in the United States materialize for various reasons. The most common cause is the FDA or USDA finding foodborne pathogens in a product. Another regular occurrence is a government agency finding a product that’s mislabeled for containing, or being processed around, an allergen. With many citizens having peanut and tree nut allergies, this recall reason is enforced widely and strictly.

An act from 2011 is a potential clue in the mystery of disappearing food recalls. The Food Safety Modernization Act overhauled specific government regulations, allowing the FDA more control over US supply chains. Instead of responding to foodborne pathogens after distribution, the act’s emphasis on preventative measures makes for healthier product consumerism. Though the act was created ten years ago, some of its power has only taken effect recently, making the legislation plausibly responsible for these declining recalls.