For many years, I have closely tracked evolving U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy, the strengthening of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspection and surveillance programs, the implementation of new technologies and the available data pertaining to the numbers of illness outbreaks and recalls.

This information offers important insights and fosters a more complete understanding of the relationship between regulation, industry, technology and food safety. 

For several years, I have published an annual recall review. I compare and contrast annual recall numbers, discuss emerging patterns and provide context. When we began tracking data, we hoped to see improvement over time, thus reflecting progress in the industry’s pursuit of safer, more wholesome food. 

As you will see, the term progress is an extraordinary understatement. The industry has achieved results that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Let’s get to the data. 

Over the past five years, recalls of USDA-regulated product have continued to trend downward. Since 2015, the number of recalls of USDA-regulated product have gone from 150 to 120, 131, 125 and 123, respectively. 

Given the profound challenges faced by the meat industry in 2020, it would be reasonable to expect an increase in 2020. But the opposite is true. In 2020, there were only 31 recalls of USDA-regulated product. It marked the best year in at least two decades. This is even more remarkable in light of advances in microbiological testing, traceability and foodborne illness surveillance during that 20-year timeframe. 

In terms of product volume, the numbers are similarly extraordinary. In 2019, 20.5 million pounds of USDA-regulated product were recalled. In 2020, that number fell to 1.2 million pounds, a decrease of approximately 95 percent. Last year, there were 33 recalls caused by foreign-material findings. This year, there were four, an 88 percent decline from last year. 

Perhaps the most amazing statistic is that there was only one recall over a pathogen concern. That recall — which was not associated with any reports of illness — involved 42,922 pounds of ground beef potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Compare that with 2018, when there were 36 pathogen-related recalls of USDA-regulated product, including a 17.2 million pound recall tied to a Salmonella outbreak that caused 246 illnesses in 25 states.

As we all know, 2020 was an unprecedented year. It is likely that the precipitous decline in the number of 2020 recalls was in some part due to factors not strictly related to food-safety improvements. Consequently, the 2020 numbers may prove to be an outlier of sorts; however, it is also clear that the hard work and dedication of our food-safety professionals are paying massive dividends.

We are winning the war.

Keep up the great work, and Happy New Year. NP