Why You've Been Seeing Fewer Food Recalls In The News Lately

Yesterday, it was Dole recalling its packaged salads over listeria concerns. Last week, it was undeclared milk products in packages of supposedly dairy-free bread manufactured by Nature's Own. In between, there were various recalls of other items that were feared to be contaminated with foreign objects, food-borne bacteria, and undeclared allergens. And that's just the state of food recalls in the last seven days alone. Yet, here's a strange little paradox. 

According to data made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), recalls are way down since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in early 2020. As reported by the FDA, the other government agency involved in the issuing of food recalls, food recalls have been on a consistent downward trend over the past several years (via NPR). Just wait until you hear the numbers that back this up: In 2019, 124 recalls affected 20,427,455 pounds of food, according to the FSIS, whereas in 2020, just 31 recalls affected 1,462,019 pounds of food. In 2021, there have been 47 recalls so far. Is this good news really as it seems? Certainly, it can't be a bad thing that food safety would appear to be on the upswing. However, some experts are wary of attributing the drop in food recalls to improvements in food safety. Here's why those experts actually believe you've been seeing fewer food recalls in the news lately. 

The relationship between food recalls and food safety is more complex than it seems

You might think that the number of food recalls would correlate with the number of foodborne disease outbreaks, and if that were true, a decrease in the volume of food recalls in a given year would spell good news for food safety. However, only a small proportion of foodborne illnesses are actually caused by foods that have been subject to recall, according to research published by Cambridge University Press. What that means, among other things, is that the downward trend in food recalls may not actually signify an upward trend in food safety. 

Rather, the decline in food recalls may indicate merely that fewer foodborne-issue incidents are being reported to government agencies, suspects the FSIS (via NPR). This underreporting may be due to various factors that include the pandemic-related labor shortage, supply chain issues, and other "societal disruptions." For example, fewer workers at any given food plant may mean fewer opportunities to identify snafus along the supply chain. Furthermore, companies had to respond to changes in demand during the pandemic, leading to abruptly updated manufacturing processes that could have created more room for error and less for correction. Nevertheless, 2020's downtick in food recalls did correspond to a 29% decrease in reports of foodborne illness, according to NPR. With that being said, correlation does not equal causation, so you should continue to stay abreast of food recall alerts.