It's been a bad week for cheese. Since Feb. 9, at least nine brands—including Sargento, Sara Lee, Meijer and Amish Classics—have pulled their cheddars, Colby Jacks and various blends from shelves over concerns that listeria made its way into the packages.
But while these big brands made splashes in the headlines, this is hardly a heavy work week for the various government agencies that handle food recalls. In fact, the Food & Drug Administration's website lists five additional food recalls in the same timeframe, pulling items from stuffed mushrooms to salad dressing from grocery stores.
Of course, some recalls are more serious than others. Listeria could be fatal, while meat containing E. coli sounds scary but could be harmless depending on the strain. So what do you do if you purchased a recalled product or worse, ate it? Don't panic.
Your first step is to make sure you've purchased an affected product. Luckily, "recall notices are usually very specific, and include information regarding which months the product were sold in, expiration dates, and even parts of serial numbers," explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D, and author of Skinny Liver. Most recalls also show which stores sold the contaminated products, so you can find out whether your zip code was ever at risk. If it wasn't, you can rest easy (and eat away).
Bought a recalled product? Next, you should identify the reason for the recall. Some products are recalled because the packaging didn't disclose a known allergen, such as nuts—and if you're not allergic, the product is still OK for you to eat. But if you find the product was pulled from shelves because it may contain a contaminant, you shouldn't eat it—and if you already did, it's time to look for symptoms.
Watch for gastric distress or diarrhea, fever, rash, hives, muscle aches, vomiting or confusion—and especially symptoms that last for more than 24 hours, as that can signal serious dehydration, says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "If you have any symptoms after eating a recalled food, it's best to call your doctor to see if you need to be checked out," she says.
Kirkpatrick adds that pregnant women, the very young or old, and those with a compromised immune system (think: you already had the flu when you took a bite of contaminated cheese) should be quicker to call their physicians, even before a symptom presents itself. But in general, in the absence of these symptoms, you don't have to rush to the doctor. "Most of the time though, you'll know if the product you have consumed is contaminated, simply by the emergence of symptoms," she says.
No matter what, if you purchased a recalled product, you should be able to bring it back to the store for a full refund or store credit. (You can check the recall notice to see if the company is offering any other options, too.) And if you get sick after eating a recalled product and incur medical bills, you can seek compensation through the manufacturer, distributor, or store—whoever is at fault—but that's a process the FDA and United States Department of Agriculture won't oversee or orchestrate.
If you still have questions, the USDA offers up a virtual nutritionist who can take your queries and instantly spit out answers. (Her name is Karen.) It's also a good idea to stay on top of current recalls by signing up for email notices from the FDA.