In recent weeks, a spate of high-profile food recalls has rattled US consumers, shedding light on an unappetizing issue plaguing the food industry – contamination by foreign objects that have no place on a dinner plate. From rocks in Trader Joe’s cookies to insects in broccoli-cheese soup and pieces of plastic in Banquet frozen chicken strips, these incidents have raised concerns about food safety in the country.
Food safety experts and federal agencies use terms like “extraneous” or “foreign” materials to describe these unexpected objects in packaged goods, which can range from metal fragments and rubber gaskets to bits of bugs. Shockingly, extraneous materials have become one of the leading reasons for food recalls in the United States.
In 2022 alone, “extraneous materials” triggered nine recalls encompassing more than 477,000 pounds of food regulated by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, surpassing the number of recalls related to toxic E. coli contamination threefold. These recalls can be substantial, with the USDA reporting 34 recalls in 2019 involving over 16 million pounds of food, primarily driven by the massive recall of nearly 12 million pounds of Tyson chicken strips tainted with metal pieces.
The sources of these foreign materials vary, including plastic pieces from frayed conveyor belts, wood shards from produce pallets, metal shavings from machinery, rocks, sticks, and even bugs that can inadvertently find their way from the field to the factory. The FDA acknowledges that some level of contamination might be expected due to the practical challenges of eliminating all naturally occurring, non-hazardous defects.
Both the USDA and FDA encourage companies to promptly report potential food contamination issues that could harm consumers. Recalls are typically voluntary and initiated by the companies themselves, although regulatory agencies can request or mandate them.
Detection technology has made significant strides in recent years, with large manufacturers employing magnets, metal detectors, X-ray devices, and other tools to identify unwanted materials. However, as Keith Belk, director of the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State University, notes, they can still miss some items.
No Bugs in my food! pic.twitter.com/qTrLMqhmZi
— Ron Carpenter (@RonCarp87318918) September 10, 2023
While the actual contamination may affect only a small portion of a product, companies often recall all items produced within a specific timeframe as a precautionary measure. Recalled food items can sometimes be reconditioned and resold, but often, they end up in landfills.
Consumers are advised to notify manufacturers if they find foreign materials in their food. However, experts caution that the risk associated with consuming food products can never be entirely eliminated, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance in the food industry to ensure consumer safety.