Food recalls: How technology could alert you before you eat that tainted salad

·17 min read

Often when we hear about a product recall – if we learn about it at all – it's from a news headline, an impersonal generic mailer or maybe scrolling by a friend's social media post. It's rare to get a personalized message saying, "Hey, something you have in your home right now has been recalled"

But a few days before Christmas at my parents' home in suburban Chicago, my dad told me the people at the local Mariano’s store did just that. They called to say that an item my family purchased was recalled.

The shredded lettuce in a taco kit we’d all eaten for dinner the night before was part of a recall of Fresh Express salad products because of possible listeria monocytogenes.

►RECALL HISTORY: From the Great Michigan Pizza Funeral to tainted peanut butter: How we got today's recall system

►HOW RECALLS WORK: Food recalls 101: How the chicken and salad mix get pulled from the shelves

Thankfully, none of us got sick. At least one person has died in connection to that recall, and another two deaths have been linked to a Dole salad kit Listeria outbreak several weeks later.

Direct notification like the one my parents got may become more common for consumers as retailers, all parts of the food supply chain and the regulatory agencies that oversee food safety work to modernize a system that has been criticized as slow and ineffectual.

How big a problem are food recalls?

About 48 million people in the U.S., or 1 in 6 Americans, get sick from foodborne diseases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die each year from preventable foodborne illnesses.

Although there have been many incremental improvements to the nation’s food safety systems since the first major safety laws were passed and the Food and Drug Administration was created in 1906, there are still many barriers to getting recall information in the hands of the consumers who need it and getting them to take action to protect themselves.

PRODUCT RECALLS: Check USA TODAY's recall resource for the latest updates

“When the contamination is actually found within a facility you know, alerting FDA, alerting USDA doesn't always happen as efficiently as perhaps we would like it to,” said Bill Hallman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. “We're sort of trying to work through that with the FDA, which has been quite open actually to improving their processes.”

Hallman is part of a working group organized by the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness, which includes representatives from major retailers like Wegmans and Costco, the Consumer Brands Association, food manufacturers, academics and activists. They put out a list of recommendations last year of ways the FDA, USDA, CDC and food industry can improve recall execution and consumer communications.

Some of the recommendations include studying how regulatory agencies and retailers can notify consumers about recalls more efficiently using technology like QR codes, targeted recall notifications and improvements to the recalls.gov webpage.

That webpage now provides a link to foodsafety.gov, which then provides further links to the CDC's food safety page, one of FDA's recall pages, and the USDA's recall page.

“I should be able to scan my jar of peanut butter and know whether it had been involved in a recall the last couple of years,” Hallman said. “That doesn't seem like too much to ask.”

The group also seeks a better understanding of what consumers say they do versus what they actually do when it comes to recalls.

Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, is a member of the same working group. He said the communication about recalls isn’t based on risk communication principles, despite there being a whole field of study on the best ways to get information to people and get them to act.

“Do we get people information? Largely the information is out there,” he said. “But is it done in the right way?”

Some of Hallman’s research shows that even when people discover they have products that have been recalled, they sometimes eat them anyway.

“When Blue Bell ice cream was recalled a few years ago, people would say: ‘Well, I already ate half the carton and it didn't make me sick. So, I'm gonna go ahead and eat the rest of the carton,’” he said.

Three people died from listeriosis related to that outbreak.

Hallman said food companies have made huge progress in the amount of attention they pay to food safety.

"Companies are much more sensitive to food contamination problems and are doing a lot in the manufacturing process to prevent them from happening and to detect them when they do happen," he said.

That increase in detection is actually leading to more recalls.

"It doesn't mean that we have a less safe food system," Hallman said. "It just means that the companies are a lot more kind of on the ball."

Working to improve food recalls

Speeding up the process of identifying potentially dangerous food products, and getting the word out to consumers in a way that they understand and can easily act on, are goals of the FDA’s Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety, released in 2019.

The plan includes emerging technologies like sensors, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence to create a more digital, transparent and safer food system. A pilot was conducted from 2019 to 2021 that used machine learning to better monitor seafood imports.

"The FDA is continuously working with our food safety partners to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply," said Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response.

Under the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act and the 2019 blueprint for modernization, the agency is working to improve its communication with the USDA.

The FDA also plans to develop guidance for the food industry on the best ways to communicate with customers via the internet, social media postings, text messages, email, alerts and digital scan prompts to ensure that consumers know if they purchased recalled products, an FDA spokesperson said.

"We at the FDA stand on the verge of a food safety revolution with access to new tools, new data streams, new technologies and new approaches that will allow us to solve some of our remaining and most significant public health or food safety challenges," Yiannas said.

The agency also recently issued draft guidance for companies on preparing for potential recalls.

"The companies that most effectively and efficiently handle recalls are the ones that have prepared for it," said Amy Philpott, who does crisis management for Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Watson Green.

“Ten to 15 years ago, companies thought that if they took the necessary actions to prepare for a recall, that that somehow indicated they didn't have confidence in their food safety system,” she said. But most have learned that preparation – including repeated staff training and even practicing mock recalls – is the best way to make a recall go smoothly if it does happen.

Part of the challenge is that food safety is a shared responsibility that involves food producers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and regulators.

"We have a really fragmented food safety system with lots of different players, and they sit in different federally mandated agencies," Chapman said. Those agencies are working to improve their communication, he said, but there's still a lot to learn.

"We don't have a good sense of what's the best way to get it to you," he said. "I've got a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, and I feel like my entire world is based in TikTok now. Should all recall messages be going to TikTok? ... There's not a lot of research on this."

►FOOD SAFETY 101: How to prevent food poisoning by monitoring recalls

'I had no idea': A Thanksgiving scare for a Vermont family

In 2008, there was no TikTok to spread the word. And like many busy parents, Gabrielle Meunier didn’t pay much attention to recall news while she was raising five kids.

“I had no idea as a consumer and a mother raising children how prevalent in our American society foodborne illness was,” said Meunier, a Phoenix resident who raised her family in Vermont.

That all changed the week of Thanksgiving, when her 7-year-old son, Christopher, began vomiting.

Next came a fever and diarrhea. After several days, Christopher was in so much pain his mother couldn’t even touch his hair without him screaming in agony.

The family spent three full days in the hospital with a boy in constant pain before finally getting a diagnosis of salmonella. The antibiotic treatment took time to work, but he was able to go home 10 days after the nightmare began.

Christopher suffered ongoing digestive symptoms. He developed reactive arthritis. And because he’d also had Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, while he was in the hospital, he remained at risk of developing the condition again if he ever needed antibiotics.

While continuing to care for her son, Meunier was also trying to find out what had poisoned him, and so was her local health department.

But Meunier remembers the questioning by health officials as confusing and frustrating. They were asking about her son swimming in pools. They kept asking about peanut butter, but he hadn’t eaten any of the jarred spread the family had in the house.

Eventually, Meunier did some digging on her own and realized her son had consumed crackers with peanut butter that became part of one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

The salmonella outbreak attributed to Peanut Corporation of America products sickened at least 714 people, half of them children under 16, and killed nine people.

Christopher eventually recovered from his illness and is now a college junior. His mom said he wants to go into politics so he can craft laws that help people.

Onion recall tied to mystery salmonella outbreak shows improvement

Meunier testified before Congress in 2009 about her experience with the recall process and made recommendations she felt would speed up the identification of tainted foods.

One suggestion was for health officials to interview people with foodborne illnesses earlier. She wasn’t interviewed until after her son was released from the hospital, so she was trying to recall over the phone what the family had eaten a full two weeks before.

“If you have a reportable illness, what I said is you should immediately do a food intake history,” Meunier said. Why couldn’t that be done online while at the hospital, she asked, as soon as there is a diagnosis of a foodborne pathogen?

She also wondered if victims being able to speak to one another might speed the process.

“In this age of technology, text messages and instant messaging, I do not understand why victims could not be given access to a secure website and chat room to allow them to talk to one another and possibly solve the question of which food poisoned them,” Meunier said in her testimony in February 2009. “Had I had an opportunity to talk to other mothers whose children were sick, and compare what they had eaten, I have no doubt we could have cracked this case back in early December.”

In the years since her family’s experience, Meunier said, she hasn’t noticed much improvement in the identification of outbreak sources or the recall process.

When the CDC identified an outbreak of salmonella across several states in early September 2021, there was no initial indication of what food might be causing the dozens of illnesses and hospitalizations.

The illnesses had begun as early as Aug. 3, but it wasn’t until Oct. 20 that a recall was initiated for red, white and yellow onions imported from Chihuahua, Mexico.

It took another couple of days for companies that bought those onions to put out news releases with more specific information. An Oct. 23 release said Hello Fresh and Every Plate meal kits shipped from July 7 through Sept. 1 may have contained contaminated onions. It’s unknown how many customers still had their meal kit ingredients from three months earlier sitting in their kitchens.

A total of 1,040 illnesses eventually were reported related to the 2021 onion salmonella outbreak, with 260 hospitalizations. CDC data shows only eight people became ill after the recall was issued. Illnesses peaked on Aug. 29.

“The CDC didn't work well with the FDA, not in (our) case,” Meunier said. “I don't know that it's ever been improved on at the federal level or the agencies. I still feel it's the same as when I testified to Congress.”

E. coli outbreak leads to salad recalls

The CDC said there have been advancements in recent years to improve investigations of foodborne outbreaks, including new laboratory technology called whole genome sequencing, or WGS.

"WGS allows scientists to know more information about the germ making people sick faster than previous technology," said Dr. Laura Gieraltowski, epidemiologist in the outbreak response and prevention branch. "It improves the detection of outbreaks, allowing officials to detect more outbreaks when they are smaller and jumpstarting the process of interviewing and analyzing food history data faster."

Additionally, she said the standard questionnaire used to interview ill people in the early stages of an outbreak investigation has been refined in recent years to include questions about leafy greens.

The FDA released a Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan last year that focuses on ways to digitize and improve the traceback process, including using purchasing data from the food industry.

Chapman said another problem is some outbreaks get released as safety alerts, but no recall is initiated. This happened with a recent E. coli outbreak related to packaged salads.

The FDA's alert went out on Jan. 6 and said 10 illnesses had been connected to E. coli in Simple Truth Organic Power Greens and Nature’s Basket Organic Power Greens. The alert looked similar to a recall in that it said to throw away the products, indicated what stores and states they were sold in, and said the packages had “Best if used by” dates through Dec. 20, 2021.

But the alert said no recall action was necessary because "Information we have now does not suggest that products currently on the market are contaminated."

Chapman interprets that to mean the expiration date had passed, so the FDA didn't think anyone still had the product in their homes.

"What if consumers froze it?" Chapman said. "I might still use it in a smoothie."

He said it's also important for that information to get out to the public in case someone who becomes ill is seeking a diagnosis.

"If you had eaten this product and if you're having undiagnosed gastrointestinal illness issues that might be linked to a pathogen ... that's important information to share with your health care provider," he said.

Several news outlets did run stories about the E. coli outbreak and the safety alert, but it got far less attention than when there is a recall.

"I think these inconsistencies are part of the challenges," Chapman said. "This is exactly the type of thing that (the FDA) is trying to modernize. They're trying to become more consistent."

Comparison shopping: How Costco and Kroger handle food recalls

Once a recall is announced, much of the burden of notifying consumers falls to the retail stores that deal with them directly. Small local grocery stores and bodegas don't have the resources of a larger chain to collect customer data and launch phone or email notifications.

Although it's not a perfect system, larger chains use their loyalty card programs or membership lists to directly contact the shoppers who they know bought recalled products.

Costco stores have been directly notifying their members about recalls for more than a decade, said Craig Wilson, vice president of quality assurance, food safety and merchandising services.

"All the information we have, we share," Wilson said of the recall alerts they send out via telephone, text, email and snail mail, sometimes before an official recall has been declared. And consumers get an automatic refund for the recalled items.

Costco has the advantage of having contact information for every customer because membership is required to shop there.

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Kroger-owned stores also send out robocalls to every loyalty card member whose phone number they have on file if there is an indication that person bought a recalled item, said Howard Popoola, vice president of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance. The information also prints out on your next receipt from Kroger if you had bought a recalled item. Emails go out to customers who ordered online for delivery.

The stores also use signage to notify shoppers that an item has been pulled from the shelf because of a recall. To get a refund, customers must return the product to the store or contact customer service.

Among more than a dozen loyalty card customers of Kroger brand stores as well as Kroger-owned chains Fred Meyer, Mariano's and King Soopers who shared their experiences with USA TODAY, only a handful had ever gotten a call about a recall.

A Kroger spokesperson said customers may not receive calls about a recall if they do not have a valid phone number on file, or if the number is blocked or flagged as spam.

And even if they did get a call, these days many people have given up on answering calls from numbers they don't recognize.

What's the plan to make food recalls more effective?

Hallman said it is likely more grocery store chains will use the data they have as part of their loyalty programs to start directly calling customers about recalls. But there are concerns about privacy.

“Some people are not happy when they're called,” Hallman said. “They don't realize that every purchase they make is being registered and tracked by the company.”

Some retailers have dropped loyalty programs because they are expensive to maintain, he said, and some are still trying to navigate potential liability in using that data for recall notifications.

“Because people don't keep their information up to date,” Hallman said. So if some customers get phone calls and some don’t because their number on file is incorrect, and then they get sick, is the store liable? These are questions retail stores are navigating before rolling out direct recall notification programs, he said.

There is also talk of how companies could utilize the same strategies they employ to sell their products when they are trying to get their products back.

“It's not overly expensive to buy targeted advertising on Facebook, for example, which they often do to sell their products,” Hallman said. “You could use that same strategy to make sure that the people who are likely to have purchased your product will see the recall notice.”

Recalls cause huge headaches for nonprofits and agencies that distribute mass amounts of food, such as food banks, meals on wheels programs, prisons and schools.

Hallman has worked with food banks in the past and said the peanut butter recalls were difficult because that’s a staple. As new brands and products like crackers were added to those rolling recalls they had to continually check what products were bad or simply throw out all the peanut butter they had.

“So it becomes just this ridiculously laborious process to figure out what you have and is it safe to distribute,” Hallman said. “I should be able to have a scanner like in the supermarket where I can just run the QR code over a scanner and you know have a signal when something needs to be set aside.”

There may be a future world where this technology is a reality throughout the food supply chain, but it will take buy-in from companies and organizations large and small, Hallman said. And as personal technology like smart fridges proliferate in the market and advance, consumers may have more ability to check all the food they buy for possible recall information.

Follow Katie Wedell on Twitter: @KatieWedell and Facebook: facebook.com/ByKatieWedell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Recalls 2022: Technology could warn of listeria, salmonella outbreaks