January 27, 2023

2022 Meat and Poultry Recalls Far Below Average

In-depth analysis from Food Poisoning Bulletin

Meat and poultry producers issued 46 recalls last year, a number far below the pre-pandemic four-year average of 126, according to a Food Poisoning Bulletin review of meat and poultry recalls published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS). Since 2010, the only year with fewer recalls was 2020 when there were plant closures due to COVID outbreaks.

Not surprisingly then, the number of recalls for bacterial contamination by one of the three major pathogens – E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria was also the lowest since 2010 excluding the first year of the pandemic.

The four-year average for these recalls before the pandemic was 26. In 2022, there were just nine recalls for meat and poultry contaminated with bacteria. Six were for products contaminated with Listeria and three were E. coli recalls.

A Year Without Salmonella

There were no Salmonella recalls for meat or poultry in 2022. And the only Salmonella public health alert USDA FSIS issued was for a chicken salad that contained peanut butter under recall for Salmonella. (Peanut butter is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).)

A year without a Salmonella meat or poultry outbreak is pretty unusual. Since 2010, the only other year without a Salmonella recall was 2020.

Where did all the recalls go?

USDA recalls 3 major pathogens 2016-2022

 

The Rise of the Public Health Alert

Part of the issue is illuminated in the upward trend of public health alerts. USDA FSIS uses these alerts as a way to notify the public about a problem with a meat or poultry product when it has decided not to request a recall from a company. The reason most often given for this choice is that the product is no longer for sale but consumers may still have the product in their freezers.

The problem with this trend is twofold. The first part is that consumers are less likely to hear about a public health alert than they are to hear about a recall. If USDA FSIS issues an alert, companies aren’t required to contact customers, retailers generally don’t post them on their recall pages, and these alerts don’t receive the same amount of media attention as recalls do.

The second, more troubling, piece of this trend is why the contamination wasn’t detected before these products made their way to consumers?

In 2022, USDA FSIS issued 23 public health alerts, a huge amount compared with previous years. Up until 2020, the annual total of these alerts was almost always a single-digit number. (In 2017, there were 10 public health alerts and 135 recalls!)

But since 2020, when recalls hit an all-time low, public health alerts have been trending upward. Of the 23 issued in 2022, eight were for food contaminated with pathogens – five for E. coli, two for Listeria, and one for Salmonella. The other 15 alerts were for undeclared allergens, lack of inspection, contamination with foreign matter, processing defects, or import violations.

 

One Solved Outbreak

One of the E. coli public health alerts was linked to the only meat or poultry outbreak that was solved last year, the HelloFresh ground Beef E. coli outbreak which sickened seven people, hospitalizing all but one of them.

The public health alert did not name the company that produced the meat but it did provide the establishment number which corresponds to Lakeside Refrigerated Systems of  Swedesboro, NJ., according to USDA FSIS.  In 2020, the company issued an E. coli recall for ground beef and ground beef patties sold at Food City, Giant Eagle, Lowe’s, Target, Walmart, Grocery Outlet, and Market District stores.

HelloFresh Ground Beef E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak is Number Eight of 2022

The HelloFresh outbreak was discovered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using its PulseNet system. PulseNet is a national database of the genetic “fingerprints” of pathogens that have sickened Americans. State health departments upload this information for each case of  Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella, and other reportable diseases. The CDC can spot an outbreak by finding matching fingerprints which indicate that people were likely exposed to the same source of contamination.

USDA FSIS opened six outbreak investigations last year. Three were E. coli outbreaks where beef was the suspected source, two were Salmonella outbreaks where beef was the suspected source, and was one a Salmonella outbreak where chicken was the presumed culprit.

Strangely, neither the FDA nor USDA FSIS declared the launch of an investigation into an ongoing and deadly Listeria outbreak linked to deli meat and cheese announced by the CDC in 2022.

That outbreak linked to deli meat and cheese sold at NetCost and other stores has sickened 16 people. Thirteen people have been hospitalized. One person has died.

Attorneys at the Pritzker Hageman Food Safety Law Firm

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