June 17, 2024

2020 Meat and Poultry Recalls Hit All-Time Low

In-Depth Analysis From Food Poisoning Bulletin

Who’s Been Minding our Meat?

When Food Poisoning Bulletin began a review of food recalls in 2020, we discovered there had been a dramatic decline in the number of recalls for meat and poultry but not for other food products. To find out why, we analyzed five years of recall data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), the federal agency that regulates meat, poultry, and egg products.

Our research showed that meat and poultry recalls plummeted to an all-time low this year. Just 29 recalls were issued for meat and poultry in 2020 (through December 10) and only one of them was for bacterial contamination. Those numbers are a fraction of the annual averages since 2016 – 128  total recalls and 26 for bacterial contamination. That’s a 96% decline in bacterial contamination recalls from the previous four year average.

What is the reason for this decline? Were there fewer inspections, less testing? If so, is the coronavirus pandemic to blame? And, if our usual safeguards were disrupted in 2020, who was minding the safety of our nation’s meat and poultry supply?

Food Safety Lawyer - Chart for Recalls by pathogen 2016-2020

A USDA FSIS spokesperson told Food Poisoning Bulletin that the agency has met all of its inspection obligations and regulatory functions throughout the pandemic and one reason that recalls may have fallen off is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported fewer outbreaks this year than the previous two years.

The CDC has reported fewer outbreaks this year (10) than it did in 2019 (17) and 2018 (24).  It turns out, that the 2020 total is closer to the number of outbreaks reported in 2017 (8) and 2016 (14) and a closer look at those outbreaks reveals the USDA-FSIS explanation doesn’t hold up.

For example, in 2016 one of the 14 outbreaks the CDC reported was for a food product regulated by USDA FSIS, and that year, the agency posted a total of 134 recalls, 29 for bacterial contamination. In 2017, none of the eight multistate outbreaks announced by the CDC was linked to a USDA-regulated product, yet the agency posted a total of 135 recalls, 24 of them for contamination with one of the three major pathogens E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella.  

To learn about the serious illnesses these pathogens can cause, click here.

Food Safety Lawyer

The sole recall for potential bacterial contamination this year was discovered through routine testing by USDA FSIS. Normally, about five recalls are triggered by USDA FSIS product testing and another six are discovered by company testing. In 2020, there wasn’t a single recall for bacterial contamination that was discovered through routine testing conducted by a company.

Of the nine remaining outbreaks announced by the CDC this year, three are suspected to be linked to romaine lettuce which is sometimes an ingredient in USDA-regulated salads, but those outbreaks haven’t been solved yet. Neither has the only 2020 outbreak linked to a product regulated by USDA FSIS, a Listeria outbreak linked to Italian-style deli meat that includes 11 illnesses and one fatality.

During interviews with health officials investigating the outbreak, all of the people sickened said they had eaten Italian-style deli meats, such as salami, mortadella, and prosciutto in the weeks before they became ill. They recalled buying these meats prepackaged and freshly sliced at deli counters at multiple store locations.

In Massachusetts, where seven illnesses have been reported, six people said they purchased the deli meat from a grocery store chain. USDA FSIS reported in October that it was using shopper card information to conduct a traceback investigation of the outbreak. No further progress on that has been reported. Although there is a zero-tolerance policy for Listeria in ready-to-eat foods, neither the brand(s) of the product(s) nor the grocery store(s) selling it has been named and there’s been no recall.

Click Here For Additional Information: How Do Recalls Work?

Food Recalls are Voluntary

Food companies issue recalls voluntarily with guidance from the USDA FSIS which regulates meat, poultry and egg products or the FDA which regulates all other foods.

If a meat or poultry company won’t issue a recall, USDA FSIS can take other actions such as issuing a public health alert, pulling its inspectors from plants to stop production, and seizing products. None of these actions happen with frequency, but public health alerts are the most common.

A Health Hazard Situation

Recalls for USDA FSIS-regulated foods are divided into three classes. Recalls for contamination by a pathogen, Class1, are  defined by the agency as “a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.

Examples of a Class I recall include the presence of pathogens in ready-to-eat meat or poultry products, or the presence of E. coli O157:H7 or non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs) in raw ground beef.”

Allowable Amounts of Salmonella 

Although Salmonella can and does cause “adverse health consequences”  and death” it isn’t considered an adulterant for raw meat and poultry. So, it’s technically legal to sell raw meat or poultry that is contaminated with Salmonella. And companies do.

The allowable amounts are:

  • 9.8 percent for broiler carcasses
  • 7.1 percent for turkey carcasses
  • 25 percent for ground chicken
  • 13.5 percent for ground turkey
  • 15.4 percent for chicken parts

The Role of COVID-19

In early April, when the first quarter of recall information became available and there was already a noticeable decline, news reports quoted experts saying there was nothing to worry about, that things would likely even out in the coming months. As we have all witnessed, things did not get better.

Before the end of that month, the nation would learn that COVID-19 was ravaging meat and poultry processing plants. Thousands of illnesses were reported in association with work inside these facilities. Not surprisingly, some of those sickened were USDA inspectors. By early May, more than 300 USDA inspectors were sick with COVID or in quarantine due to exposure, three of them had died.

Temporary plant closures due to rolling outbreaks of COVID-19 came to an end in June following an Executive Order from President Trump. “As of this morning, across the cattle, swine, and broiler sectors, processing facilities are operating more than 95% of their average capacity compared to this time last year,”  U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on June 9, 2020.  “In fact, beef facilities are operating at 98%, pork facilities are operating at 95%, and poultry facilities are operating at 98% of their capacity compared to the same time last year.”

What all of this means is that meat and poultry industries have been functioning at near-capacity levels since June, producing as much beef, pork and chicken as ever, during a pandemic that has sickened thousands of workers and inspectors and creating a workforce shortage, yet there has only been one instance of bacterial contamination…a 97 percent reduction over previous years.

Food Poisoning Bulletin’s publisher, Food Safety Attorney Fred Pritzker, is skeptical.

Either the meat and poultry industries have had the most statistically unbelievable luck in 2020 or we just don’t know yet all that has been missed,” Pritzker said.  “In the months to come, we will likely get a clearer picture of how COVID-19 affected food safety during 2020. And that picture probably won’t be a pretty one.

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