Understanding food recalls

Understand food recalls to know how to identify a potentially contaminated food.

With recent outbreaks receiving heavy media attention, the awareness and education on food recalls has become more important. Recalls occur when a food has been identified to be contaminated, whether it is from a pathogen or an allergen, or has been mislabeled. The contaminated food then has the potential to make people ill or have an allergic reaction. Symptoms of a foodborne illness can range from mild gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, to more severe symptoms, including death.

The process of recalling food is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and can be identified as the result of a consumer reported incident(s) or inspections. The FDA has policies and systems in place that focus on preventing foodborne illness, such as making sure manufacturers are following safe food handling practices; for example, keeping food at the proper temperature to reduce bacteria growth. The Unites States imports food from 170 different countries, and has a part in overseeing that the food is safe through direct inspections and partnering with foreign regulatory agencies. When an outbreak does occur, the FDA has reporting procedures in place to inform the public and regulate the sale, distribution and recall efforts.

The chart below from Foodsafety.gov shows how food can become contaminated as a result of the following practices:



Example of Contamination


Growing the plants we harvest or raising the animals we use for food.

If fields are sprayed with contaminated water, fruits and vegetables can be contaminated before harvest.


Changing plants or animals into what we recognize and buy as food. 

If contaminated water or ice is used to wash, pack or chill fruits or vegetables, the contamination can spread to those items.


Moving food from the farm or production plant to the consumer or a kitchen.

If refrigerated food is left on a loading dock for a long period of time in warm weather, it could reach temperatures that allow bacteria to grow.


Getting the food ready to eat. This may occur in the kitchen of a restaurant, home or institution.

If a cook uses a knife to cut raw chicken and then uses the same knife without washing it to slice tomatoes, the tomatoes can be contaminated by pathogens from the chicken.

To stay current on the latest recalls, Michigan State University Extension recommends signing up for automatic alerts. To find out how to sign up for automatic email alerts, an RSS feed, or how to get a food safety widget on a web page, visit foodsafety.gov. The CDC’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD) online database allows you to search for information on outbreaks. Other resources include your local and state health departments, and arms of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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