As a food industry lawyer, I tend to follow annual food recall statistics quite closely. When viewed over time, these statistics are a useful tool for objectively assessing, from a food-safety standpoint, where the meat industry is performing well, and where the industry’s safeguards are perhaps still lagging behind. By studying these statistics, food companies can do a better job anticipating and avoiding potential future problems, which in turn drives the total numbers of recalls down.

As far as recalls go, 2016 was a busy year. Through mid-December, were a total of 118 recalls involving approximately 51,134,084 pounds of FSIS-regulated meat products. The leading cause of recalls was for undeclared allergens. Repeatedly, companies failed to protect against cross-contact during manufacturing, or accurately declare the presence of allergens in their finished products. According to FSIS, most of these failures, which collectively led to more than 40 recalls involving nearly 1,000,000 pounds of meat products, were easily avoidable. So too, was one company’s failure to identify MSG on its product label, which led to the recall of an additional 549,539 pounds of chili products. FSIS will remain on the hunt for misbranding and undeclared allergens in 2017, and all companies should do a better job protecting and mitigating against such easily avoidable risks. 

The second leading cause of recalls in 2016 was for foreign materials. All told, there were 20 recalls involving 1,020,928 pounds of product. The foreign materials discovered in recalled products included metal shavings, glass shards, blue plastic, black specks and a collection of pieces from someone’s flashlight. Here too, a large percentage of these meat product recalls could have been avoided through more robust preventive programs and more attention to detail. 

The third leading cause of recalls in 2016 was meat produced without inspection. A total of 17 recalls were announced for 50,937 pounds of product that were processed without inspection. Once again, each of these recalls could have been easily avoided. 

The fourth leading cause of recalls was for Listeria monocytogenes (Lm). Although only 12 recalls were announced for the presence of Lm, the recalls involved a stunning 47,770,790 pounds of meat products. Indeed, Lm remains very elusive and is not nearly as easy to protect against as allergen- or foreign material-related recalls. With that said, all food companies should continue to work more diligently to eradicate resident strains of Lm from the processing environment.

Although there were many other more subtle reasons for recalls in 2016, there is a lot we can learn from the major causes detailed above. The risks posed by undeclared allergens, foreign materials, and Lm are significant and affect all companies. With greater focus and attention to detail, use what you can learn from the mistakes of other companies in 2016 to prevent those same mistakes from happening to your company this year.

Indeed, commit to doing a better job to avoid these avoidable risks and, from a recall-avoidance standpoint, make 2017 a banner year!  NP