/ Food & Drink

Food recalls: does the system need improving?

Contaminated eggs

It may be bits of plastic in Mars bars or salmonella traces in supermarket dips, recalls of food products are carried out for a whole host of reasons. But do you know when a food product is recalled?

The sad news this week that a child has died and 11 people hospitalised from E coli poisoning allegedly linked to blue cheese showed in very stark terms the importance of effective food safety controls.

It can sometimes be easy to take food safety for granted – or assume that if you do eat contaminated food, you will at worse have to suffer a few days with sickness and diarrhoea. But as this outbreak has shown, the effects can sometimes be devastating.

Reviewing recalls

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) are currently reviewing how food controls are carried out, including the relative role of local authority inspections and food business own-checks.

Our research, carried out last year highlighted how, with local authority resources under strain (PDF), many are struggling to keep up with food hygiene inspections and the levels of business compliance can vary greatly.

The FSA and FSS are also taking a closer look at how food recalls work. In the case of the E coli outbreak, the producer of the cheese, believed to be the most likely cause, is reported to have undertaken a voluntary recall of potentially affected products once the issue came to light.

Food product recalls do take place on a surprisingly regular basis. Those issued through the FSA in recent weeks have included ice cream containing metal, sausage rolls containing plastic and yoghurt containing rubber. Cake has been recalled because of risk of salmonella and chicken salad products because of undercooked chicken. Indian ready meals have also been wrongly date labelled with a best before date, rather than a use-by date.

Improving food recalls

Compared with other product safety issues (the Whirlpool saga is particularly front of mind), the food recall system is often held up as being reasonably effective.

The FSA and FSS will be looking at whether it does work as it should – including how effectively consumers are informed about affected products so that they do not eat them and how well potentially affected products are removed from supermarket or, perhaps sometimes more challenging, small retailer shelves or restaurant menus. Responsibility for over-seeing that this happens, once again falls to local authorities.

So tell me, have you ever been affected by a product recall? Have you ever been made aware that some products have been affected (for example through signs in the supermarket or newspaper ads)? Do you think that there are better ways of making people aware of recalls?


I trust the food I buy in the supermarket simply because I have no way of knowing if it is contaminated. One can use sight and smell, but, if it is on the shelf and in date, then what more can one do? I am obviously aware that some foods need special preparation and cooking to avoid being poisoned, but that’s my responsibility and that of the label on the package. I don’t think I have ever seen an actual food recall. Some foods are removed from the shelves during a scare and I get to hear of it later on. Unless one keeps a constant check on the news and the papers food, once bought, can be consumed before the problem has got to my ears. The recent yogurt recall is a case in point. I buy a few of these at a time and could have eaten many before I knew about their rubber content.
It is vital that manufacturers only supply good food and get it right every time by quality control, recall is too late. Fortunately, we have an excellent food chain and this happens. I don’t think I’ve been poisoned by anything I have bought, though the same can not be said of restaurants I’ve eaten at. Buying in small shops and wayside stores can be more of a risk since stock can remain on shelves for longer. They can offer some fabulous home made products and it would be unfair to target these en-masse. Recalls are not effective when a product has left the shop.

I’d like to see properly funded local authority food inspection units that close premises as soon as severely health-threatening conditions are found, and only allow them to reopen when satisfied by improvements. Funding should come from charges for licensing all food wholesale and retailing premises, raw or cooked, restaurants or takeaways. We should also ensure their hygiene/food safety rating is prominently displayed outside the premises and regularly updated.

In terms of recalls I presume that would only affect prepared meals? Having said that I do remember a case around two years ago where badly washed lettuce was responsible for a food poisoning outbreak.

So – two problems seem to exist: Firstly, non-convenience foods, such as salads, would presumably only be subject to recall once they’d been responsible for actually poisoning someone. Secondly, Convenience foods, such as quick meals and cakes, etc. could be checked regularly, but how regularly, I assume is the question.

We place a lot of trust in the supermarkets and often the first sign that it’s misplaced is when someone dies. So what system should be implemented for recalls? TV and Radio news, for a start, and possibly internet alerts as an addition. Other than that, I don’t know.

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People are being affected by bugs because they always keep thing clean and sterilised and abhor the smallest bit of dirt . My mother always said a little dirt did nobody any harm ,in fact it you good by slowly building up immunity against bugs and associated things which when you were affected by serious things you had some immunity already there . I never worry about getting these things knowing I will have some immunity I can’t remember every having any kind of stomach bug even the things I do would cause abhorrence in many people.. Don’t many vaccines work in a similar way. ?

Indeed; vaccines work by dry-firing the immune system which destroys the vaccine but remembers it, and hence knows to attack it virulently when it next appears. And there is, as you say, increasing evidence that our hygiene standards, particularly those applied to very young children, are lowering our natural immunity. On the other hand your average virus, for instance, mutates up to a thousand times per hour, while Bacteria have been continuously evolving to the point now, where almost all antibiotics are essentially ineffective.

Essentially, we’re always playing catch-up with viruses and bacteria, so both continued vigilance and a healthy immune system are all that stand between us and some rather unpleasant illnesses.

” But do you know when a food product is recalled? ”

An interesting question as it is almost philosophical in its scope. It gives a time dimension and also is suggesting that we should all know. Curiously it remarks that recalls happen more often than you think without perhaps realising that Which? perhaps is a means for providing this information.

I have a free US based e-magazine that daily sends me consumer information and at the end includes recalls both food and products electrical and otherwise. If Which? did this we would be savvier as to the frequency of recalls AND just a chance we might realise we might have bought the offending product.

Here is Friday’s section from ConsumerAffairs.com. They cover other consumer matters also. Incidentally if you click on a car section then all the recalls by brand are avaialble which is handy.

Model year 2016 Chrysler 200s recalled
Chassis fastener joints may loosen and fail or fall out, reducing steering and handling capability

Westby Cooperative Creamery recalls cottage cheese
The product may not have been pasteurized adequately

Creative Sourcing recalls HAUS mosquito zapper LED light bulbs
The light bulb’s base can separate from the connector, posing an electrical shock hazard

The Conversation includes an in-line link to a pdf.

I am not a great fan of acclimatising people to click on in-line links as they could potentially take people somewhere malicious. Malvertising is unlikely on Which? but it is a danger.

I realise that giving proper links at the bottom of the article spoils the look but is not security conscious design something to be aimed for? The first link is to an excellent Which? report from February 2015 which perhaps could have been used slightly more to give some scale to the problems – monitoring over 622,000 food establishments – is but part of the brief.

A absolute food safety is a pipe dream in a practical world it would be interesting to see how we compare with other countries. We can then draw some comfort on how good our services are.

As a general point when Which? has surveys carried out can it provide the data , particularly the questions asked , and post them in some corner of the Web for us members who are paying for it. Surveys can provide exciting results but the quality of questions etc can be interesting. I plead as someone who has over the years completed several hundred surveys some of which where very poor in design. And some where Which?’s own.

Foxter says:
13 September 2016

Perhaps if the government hadn’t got rid of most of the Trading standards and Environmental Health officers they would need to do this…