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What You Need to Know about Food Recalls

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It seems like every time you turn on the news there is some sort of illness going around. This year was a record epidemic for the flu. Most of the time staying healthy is relatively simple: get your shots, wash your hands and stay away from anyone hacking up a lung. Unfortunately, a large portion of those illnesses going around are hidden in food that we unknowingly ingest before it’s too late.

Food recalls used to be limited to urban legends like someone finding something random like a frog in a green bean can. Now it seems E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and inedible particles of non-food products can be found in anything from bagged spinach to ice cream to watermelon. It can feel like protecting yourself is just dumb luck instead of something you can actively do. Here is what you need to know about food recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts to keep you as healthy as possible.

Basics about Food Safety Regulations

Food and its safety related to ingestion is generally regulated by the Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service. The USDA not only regulates, it also seeks to educate groups that are more at risk to food related illnesses than others. Babies, young children, pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk for foodborne illness.

Not all food recalls are created equal. There are three classifications. Class I is the most serious where “reasonable probability that the use of, or exposure to, a volatile product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.” Class II is still serious but not as severe. Class II states the “use of, or exposure to, a volatile product may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences,” with the probability of serious adverse health consequences being slim. Most often a Class II is a result of someone having tampered with the food. Class III is the least serious where “use of, or exposure to, this volatile product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences.” More often than not this is when the appearance of food doesn’t appear correct but is still safe to ingest.

What Leads to a Recall?

There is a wide-variety of things that the USDA will administer a warning for. The most common recalls are broken down into the five categories that are easy for the general public to understand. The first three are bacteria. First is Listeria and it is one of the most commonly found on the news these days. This nasty bacteria shows up in soil, water and some animals. Contamination occurs in improperly processed milk and meat products and can only be nixed by cooking at high heat and pasteurization. E. coli is up next. The interesting fact to point out is that only certain strains of this bacteria will cause sickness and worse, the type that makes you sick lives in animal feces. While meat is most often the culprit of any E. coli sickness, leafy vegetables and fruits can often harbor the bacteria especially if they are processed in the same facility as animals. Salmonella is the third and probably the bacteria America is most familiar with. Our mothers convinced us that even looking at raw chicken and delicious cookie dough would leave us on our death bed. Most often a chicken product related fear, Salmonella has been found in melon and peanuts. The bacteria is spread by handling baby chicks, reptiles and rodents. It can be best prevented or avoided by being vigilant about sanitation practices in your kitchen. This means no cross contamination and washing everything in hot, soapy water.

The next two types of recalls are related to added items. The first type is foreign objects, meaning a non-food item has found its way into the food product. This could be something from shards of glass to bits of plastic. Last, is an undeclared ingredient. For some this seems to be a relief since an almond in their bran muffin is no big deal, but it can be fatal for someone with a major allergy. The most common undeclared items that cause concern are milk, eggs, fish and nuts.

What to Do If You Have an Issue with a Food

First and foremost, go see a physician if you think you are ill and do not get rid of anything related to the food. Keep anything foreign you might have found in the food, as much of the original packaging as possible and (as much as you don’t want to) the rest of the uneaten food.

There are separate agencies that are responsible for protecting different segments of the food supply. When you have a problem with a food product, be sure to log online to make sure you contact the correct organization. You are going to be asked for your personal information, brand name of the food, product name and manufacturer of the food along with the quantity you purchased and the type of packaging it was purchased in. Those random codes and dates you often see on food containers that look like computer codes will be requested along with the establishment number found in the circle or shield near the phase “USDA passed and inspected”. Then of course details on when and where you bought the food.

Food recalls as a general topic are icky. The best way to keep you and your family safe is to take a look at www.fda.gov and read up on food safety for storing and preparing to prevent any accidental illnesses at home. The other thing you can do is sign up for alerts at http://go.fda.gov/subscriptionmanagement  to know if anything you brought into your home is contaminated to prevent ingestion as early as possible.

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