How does food recalls even happen? Are they the fault of farmers or manufacturers? And why are you hearing about so many lately? Here's a nutritionist and food safety expert on everything you need to know. 

Credit: TomFoldes/Getty Images

In 2018, the FDA reported 24 multi-state food-borne outbreak investigations—the highest seen since the online reporting first began in 2006. Chicken salad, pre-cut melon, eggs, dried coconut, raw sprouts, raw turkey, Ritz and Goldfish crackers, and Kellogg's cereal are just a few from a laundry list of recalls last year due to salmonella. And of course, there was the widely publicized romaine lettuce recall due to e. coli that sickened 172 people in 32 states.

Not even a month into 2019, the recall frenzy has already started. Just last week, Perdue recalled their gluten-free chicken nuggets that were contaminated with wood particles. This week, General Mills recalled their 5-pound bags of flour over salmonella fears. And today, Whole Foods announced a recall of prepared food items containing baby spinach because of possible salmonella contamination.Yikes.

Listening to recalls on the news now almost weekly can be scaring and confusing—is our food supply not as safe as it once was? Or are we just hearing more about these outbreaks now due to heightened awareness? Is it a problem with the farms, processing plants, or distribution? Here, the full scoop.

How Food Recalls Happen

All food and supplements are subject to the FDA's mandatory recall authority, with the exception of infant formula (which has separate regulations). Thanks to a law passed seven years ago, the FDA has the authority to mandate a food recall if there is reason to believe that the food is adulterated or misbranded, or if it could cause serious adverse health consequences. Yet, they've only done this once. Recalls tend to be done voluntarily when a food company finds an issue (like the wood in chicken nuggets scenario), that can potentially be harmful to the public if they consume the food. The company will then work together with the FDA to help alert the public.

A food-borne illness outbreak is defined as an incidence when two or more people get sick after eating the same contaminated food or drink. It's pretty tough to link outbreaks of food-borne illness back to the original source, but with the expanded capabilities of technology in the past few years, the government is now better able to pinpoint a specific strain of a pathogen, allowing them to tie together illnesses between different people across states. (Related: Is the Food In Meal Kit Delivery Services Actually Safe to Eat?)

While it can still be a challenge for officials to quickly determine the exact origin of an outbreak, (as seen with a recent romaine outbreak in late 2018), overall, thanks to new laws and new technology, the FDA is able to be less reactive and more proactive in preventing foodborne illnesses *before* they happen.

Food Recalls In Processing Facilities

As a food safety expert and professor, I've visited numerous food processing plants throughout the United States over the past decade. Rest assured, they follow very strict rules and regulations to help prevent biological, chemical, and physical contamination of the food to the best of their ability. Amazingly, I find the facilities to be cleaner than most consumer kitchens.

Obviously, the recalls we hear about are the exception to that rule. After more than 11 million boxes of Kellogg's Honey Smacks were recalled in June 2018 due to salmonella (the infection spread across 36 states with 135 cases and 34 hospitalizations)—the facility was shut down.

In addition to outbreaks of infection, it's also possible for the machinery to break off in the food processing chain. (See: Jimmy Dean Recalls Nearly 30,000 Pounds of Sausage That May Contain Metal) However, most have technology in place to help prevent this: On a visit to a triple wash lettuce facility in California, the facility actually had metal detectors to ensure that pieces of metal drying units (after the lettuce is washed, it is dried) don't break off and fall into the food.

Bottom line: Even though many barriers to contamination are implemented to ensure a safe food supply, sometimes mistakes happen, and nothing is 100 percent foolproof. Luckily, the food processing facilities do work diligently to ensure that any issue that does arise is addressed and measures are taken to help prevent it from happening again.

Food Recalls In the Farming Industry

After an outbreak in something like romaine lettuce, folks are often looking for a fall guy and hardworking farmers are in the line of fire. But farmers don't necessarily see recalls as the worst thing.

"Recalls happen when we learn of or detect an issue of quality or contamination after products leave our fields or facilities. They are quite rare, but recalling products is an important action to take when any issue arises that might impact our consumers," says John Boelts, a lettuce farmer for Desert Premium Farms in Yuma, AZ—where the first romaine lettuce recall was pinpointed.

"I'd be more concerned if no voluntary recalls were happening," he adds. Boelts sees recalls as a way for farmers to continuously share ideas and best practices to ensure that the food grown is as safe as possible.

According to David Gill, partner at Rio Farms, King City, CA, the reason we are hearing about more recalls is "from the overabundance of caution"—rather than from any change in the actual safety of crops. Still, "the industry continues to work on better ways to make our food supply safe," he adds.

A few of the ways they're doing that since the romaine lettuce outbreak? Farmers have fenced off their fields, created buffer zones from any livestock areas, and they have food safety staff that patrol fields, set traps for rodents, visually check fields, and keep extensive records. They have trained all employees to be aware of any animal intrusion or food safety issues, and field test all leafy greens before harvest for any pathogens, he says. They also have annual third-party audits that come in and verify their protocols and records. Groups like the Leafy Greens Marketing Association also help to assure safe leafy greens—and similar groups exist across multiple farming industries.

Boelts says that despite the alarming number of recalls we hear about, "the public should feel confident in our food supply." (Related: This Revolting FDA Report Will Change the Way You Look at Airplane Food)

As a dietitian and food safety expert, I can tell you that I agree with him.

In the past decade, I've visited lettuce, peanut, tart cherry, strawberry, quinoa, almond, beef, dairy, and many other farms around the United States, and I have spoken to dozens of farmers, processors, and packers. And I've witnessed firsthand that American farmers and ranchers are doing everything possible to grow and supply safe food.

Steps You Can Take at Home to Make Sure Your Food Is Safe

The FDA publishes a list of recalls on their website, but you can also have this information delivered directly to your inbox by signing up for food recall alerts. When a recall does happen, specific details, including the name and code on the food, and actions to take are listed. Oftentimes consumers are advised to return the product to the store for a refund or to toss it out.

Of course, there are steps you should take in your own kitchen to ensure the food you serve is safe. (Like yes, washing your avocados before you eat them to remove bacteria.) This includes cooking food to the correct minimum internal cooking temperatures, storing food in the refrigerator, keeping countertops free of contaminants when preparing food, and maintaining good personal hygiene when preparing food (like washing your hands after using the restroom).

This Story Originally Appeared On Shape