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Kimberly Holland
Updated March 28, 2019

When food recalls go out, these are the steps you should take to keep your family safe.

Alarming headlines aside, food recalls occur quite frequently. That’s both good and bad for the American food supply.

Food recalls are certainly unsettling. Consumers place their trust in manufacturers to grow and produce foods that are safe to consume.

However, the recalls are also reassuring. Food manufacturers and inspectors are getting better at finding potential problems. That means they can catch likely contamination before it affects large swaths of consumers, or even any consumer at all. The brands can also learn from these errors and put in place new food safety measures that can improve their processes and protect their customers.

If you discover you have a food that’s been recalled, don’t panic. Take these steps to protect yourself, your family, your animals, and others—and possibly get your money back.

Educate yourself

First, the good news: Most food recalls are not the result of possible bacterial contamination, such as E.coli or Listeria. Indeed, the majority of recalls are related to potential contamination issues from foreign objects (metal or plastic shavings) or undeclared allergens (milk, peanut, eggs).

Some recalls are also a precautionary measure; a company may discover proper inspection protocol was not followed, and for the safety of their customers, they want to recall the food.

And now for the bad news: Not every food recall gets national attention. Recalls for Romaine lettuce, flour, and ground turkey have made headlines in the past because the size of the recalls was quite large—and people were getting sick, too. Smaller recalls, however, happen every day, and rarely with any great public service campaign to raise awareness.

To fully understand any food recall, see the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Recalls, Market Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts page. There, you can read every recall issued within the past several years. The page will tell you brand names, product names, and the reasons for the recall. You can also see the full recall notice, which will give you information you need to properly identify recalled food (production dates, for example) and what to do with it.

Don’t eat the food

It's worth repeating: don’t eat any recalled foods. Even if a food is recalled as a precautionary measure, it’s better to avoid it and know you’re safe than to eat it and worry.

If a food has been recalled for an undeclared allergen, such as milk, and no one in your family has a milk allergy, you may feel safe eating the food. It’s still wise to heed the company’s recall.

Likewise, do not donate the food, give it to anyone else, or feed it to a pet. If it’s not safe for you to eat, it’s not safe for another human or animal to eat either.

Don’t open the food

You cannot see, smell, or taste foodborne pathogens like E. coli and Listeria. But you can transfer the bacteria from the contaminated food to your entire kitchen if you open the food and touch it.

If you must handle the food to throw it away—leafy greens, for example, may be in a produce-storage container—you need to take a few safety precautions once you throw the food away. Wash your hands with warm water and soap. Wash any containers in which the food was stored, too. A high-temp wash in the dishwasher is more likely to kill bacteria than a hand wash alone.

Follow the guidelines

With each food recall, companies are required to offer consumers guidance on what to do with the food. Companies will likely suggest you do one of two things:

  • Throw out the food immediately. Wrap it in multiple layers of plastic and packaging to prevent animals or other humans from getting to it.
  • Return the product to the store at which you purchased it for a refund. If you cannot get to the store, just throw the food away.

Clean your kitchen

Lastly, once the food is out of your house, it’s time to clean your refrigerator thoroughly. Additionally, use antibacterial wipes or a bleach solution and paper towels to clean your kitchen, especially areas where the food may have been prepared or cooked.

Keep tabs on (future) food recalls

For future recalls, you can continue to watch the FDA’s Alerts page. You can also sign up for delivery alerts, which will be emailed to you with every new recall or withdrawal. (As a warning, these do happen frequently, so your inbox will be busy.)

Lastly, if you’re concerned about food recalls specifically because of allergy issues, you can monitor the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) Allergy Alerts page. FARE maintains up-to-the-minute alerts on foods that are recalled because of mislabeled or recalled foods. With each recall, they also specifically list the potential allergy so you can more easily take heed of the ones that directly affect you and your family.

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