Most USDA Food Recalls Now Prompted by Undeclared Allergens

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By Madi Alexander

Aug. 8 — Undeclared allergens such as nuts or milk not listed properly on a product’s label are now the leading cause of recalls for USDA-inspected food products, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis.

Pathogens like listeria and salmonella had previously prompted the most recalls for foods regulated by the Department of Agriculture, which inspects meat, egg and poultry products. The Food and Drug Administration regulates all other foods.

The number of USDA recalls for undeclared allergens jumped from just nine in 2006 to 58 in 2015. Almost 22 million pounds of food products have been recalled due to undeclared allergens since 2006.

Meanwhile, foodborne pathogen recalls have decreased in the past decade from a high of 34 recalls in 2007 for E. coli, listeria and salmonella combined to a low of 16 recalls for these pathogens in 2014.

Changing Suppliers Increase Recalls

Al Almanza, USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety, said the rise in undeclared allergen recalls is largely due to ingredients of USDA-inspected products being manufactured off-site by different suppliers.

“Facilities used to blend products in-house, but that’s simply not the case anymore,” he said.

Seasonings and sauces, for example, are often purchased from other suppliers rather than being made in the same facility as the finished product.

ConAgra Foods Inc. recalled more than 84,000 pounds of frozen dinners in May 2016 after a sauce mix-up. A mislabeled shipment of Worcestershire sauce was mistakenly used in the dinners instead of the correct ingredient—Rochester sauce.

The Worcestershire sauce contained anchovies, while the Rochester sauce did not. Because the label did not specify that fish was an ingredient, the dinners were recalled for containing an undeclared allergen.

“Sometimes these spice manufacturers aren’t paying as close attention to these products,” Almanza said. “If the suppliers of these substances, these ingredients, aren’t paying attention to what undeclared allergens are, the liability will fall on the company that we regulate.”

Manufacturers are required to not only list the ingredients of a food, but to disclose any sub-ingredients of the main components, Almanza said. A frozen pasta dinner would list pasta as an ingredient on the label, but it would also have to list any ingredients of the pasta, such as eggs and flour.

Testing Policies Reduce Pathogen Recalls

The implementation of a “test-and-hold“ policy helped reduce the number of recalls, particularly for listeria contamination, Almanza said. Productions facilities hold products until tests come back negative for pathogens, after which the food is sent to retailers.

Almanza also said the decrease in recalls for E. coli O157:H7—a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli—was “certainly due to our increased sampling.”

These prevention measures seem to be working, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beef and pork caused 152 and 134 documented cases of foodborne illness, respectively, in 2014. Seven years earlier, beef and pork were responsible for 667 and 574 illnesses, respectively.

Undeclared Allergens Pose Health Risks

Improperly labeling food with common allergens could be life-threatening to a person with food allergies, said Jennifer Jobrack, senior national director of advocacy for Food Allergy Research & Education. She said it is “critical” that all food producers follow the guidelines for reducing allergen hazards.

Recalls for undeclared allergens are typically put in the class I or class II category. Class I recalls pose a health hazard, and consuming the product could cause serious illness or death. Class II recalls pose less of a hazard than class I recalls, but could still result in illness from using the product.

For some people, even trace amounts of a particular allergen can cause anaphylaxis—a life-threatening allergic reaction.

“While a consumer may not be aware of an undeclared allergen, it is important for people with food allergies and their caregivers to read every label, every time, even if they have consumed the food before, as ingredients and processing facilities can change,” Jobrack said.

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