Richard Stephens: In wake of contaminated product, best reaction is to recall




Richard Stephens

Richard Stephens is the Recall Coordinator and Lab Liaison for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Food Safety. He has been with the department for six years – two in his current position, and four as a microbiologist in the division’s Food Safety Lab. He received his B.S. in Marine Biology from the University of West Florida. Upon graduation, he spent two month’s at sea aboard the Nathanial B. Palmer as part of a NSF grant to study UV exposure related DNA degradation on marine microorganisms. Prior to coming to FDACS, he worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the University of West Florida’s Wetlands Research Lab.

Food recalls are becoming more and more common place. They can run the gamut from minor misbranding issues for a small, local manufacturer; to major outbreak related pathogens involving multinational corporations. Regardless of the size and scope, they all have the same goal: to ensure the safety of our food, and protect consumers.

Recalls are broken down into three classes, as outlined by the FDA. Class I recalls are for products that could cause serious health problems or death.

Class II recalls are for products that could cause temporary health problems. In practice, there are very few (if any) class II recalls related to food products. Class III recalls are for products that are unlikely to cause any harm, but do not meet a labeling or manufacturing standard. A label not printed in English would be a class III recall.

The majority of Food Safety recalls are going to be Class I. These are food products that are adulterated due to the presence of a deleterious substance – such as Salmonella, Listeria, or Lead; or are misbranded in such a way that they could cause serious harm – not declaring an ingredient that is a common allergen for example.

These recalls are instigated via several channels. An outbreak that is traced back to a certain product could result in a recall. We saw this last September with Cantaloupes traced back to a specific grower. Additionally, routine surveillance sampling and testing conducted by the FDA, USDA, and partner state agencies (such as our Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,) may find a contaminant that results in a recall. Lastly, the manufacturing firm may discover through their own testing/monitoring a contamination event and issue a voluntary recall.

With any luck, a contaminant is found before an outbreak occurs, and the affected product is recalled. However, due to the vast number of products, and finite testing resources, this is frequently not the case. More often than not, everyone involved is “chasing” the adulterant, trying to determine where it came from.

Once the source is identified, the manufacturer/producer/grower are generally amicable and more than willing to cooperate and issue a voluntary recall. No business wants to be associated with deaths due to their product, and a recall initiated by the producer “looks” better in the public eye than one initiated by state/federal agencies.

A note on voluntary recalls – neither the FDA nor the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has the authority to issue a mandatory recall (although the FDA soon will under the new Food Safety Modernization Act.) The ability of state agencies varies. FDACS does have the power to place products under Stop Sale however, preventing further suspect product from reaching the marketplace. If all else fails, and a firm is unwilling to issue a recall, state agencies can issue a press release recommending that consumers avoid certain brands based on their findings. This is a last resort, as it is in everyone’s best interest for the implicated firm to issue the recall.

Public perception of the producer, and the industry, can go a long way in rebuilding consumer confidence after an outbreak and/or recall.

In recent years, we have had recalls of various produce items due to major outbreaks. Fresh produce recalls, and outbreaks, are very difficult to work. First, the end product is frequently consumed raw. It is not heat treated (“cooked”) to kill various pathogens. Second, they are grown beyond the full control of the producer – outside, exposed to the elements and fauna of the fields. For this reason, consumers are urged to wash all produce before consuming it.

As our detection methods become better and better, recalls will likely increase. That is either the good or bad news depending on your perspective. However, with each recall, we learn a little more. This gives the industry and regulators new information to develop and implement new methods, procedures, and policies to hopefully limit the severity – both physical and economic – of future recalls. That is our goal.

For more information on Food Recalls, and general food safety information, please visit

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