On July 20, a dairy company announced a Salmonella contamination had been discovered in whey powder produced at its plant in Blair, Wisconsin. This didn’t get much public attention, but events over the next few days did.
The following day, parents and consumers learned through social media and various news sources that some varieties of Ritz crackers were being recalled due to potential Salmonella contamination. Two days later, Campbell Soup announced a recall of some Goldfish cracker varieties for the same reason. Both Campbell and Mondelez International, the maker of Ritz Crackers, had purchased whey powder from the dairy company involved in the recall, Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI).
Has food contamination become more common?
Campbell’s and Mondelez’ recalls happened on the heels of Chipotle’s latest contamination problems and the recent outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce. Just a week before the Ritz and Goldfish announcements, Kelloggs Honey Smacks were recalled amidst a Salmonella contamination crisis. The cereal sickened people in 33 states between March and July 2018.
With all this in the headlines, it would be easy to assume the U.S. food system is facing serious problems. Recalls and outbreaks seem more common than ever. And the fact that several of these recalls have affected favorite children’s snacks is sure to make parents nervous.
Are there really more food contamination issues these days? Or are we just hearing about them more?
Other factors affecting the number of recalls
Unlike some other recent recalls, the Ritz and Goldfish recalls came before any illnesses were reported. (In the following days, several customers reported illnesses after eating Ritz crackers.) The whey powder contamination was discovered during routine testing at AMPI, according to the company.
Today, contamination is more likely to be discovered early because of advances in detection and tracing technology. Additionally, policy changes stemming from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, have led to increased testing and reporting. According to the FDA, one of the major changes instigated by FSMA is a shift in focus from reacting to outbreaks to preventing outbreaks.
Between FSMA, better testing technology and enhanced media attention in the wake of deadly outbreaks, it may appear that food contamination is becoming more common. But in the past, similar incidents may just have not been caught and any resulting illnesses may have been chalked up to other causes.
Are foods frequently served to kids subject to more attention in these situations? The provisions of FSMA apply to companies regardless of whether the products are targeted at kids or adults. But because Goldfish and Ritz are two familiar brands popular for kids’ lunches and snacks may have increased media coverage of the situation. And parents frequently spread the word on social media when a recall affects something their kids use, whether it’s a toy, a crib or a snack food.
Why we need a modern food testing system
Our modern food system is complex and many ingredients have national or international distribution. When, almost inevitably, the occasional contamination occurs, it can affect people across many states and even countries. For this reason, we need a strong detection system as well as a rapid alert system to identify contaminated food and stop it from reaching consumers.
When disease-associated microbes are discovered in the food supply, we need to spread the word fast. Media coverage can actually work to an affected company’s advantage if it prevents people from getting sick from eating already recalled foods.
According to the CDC, kids under age five are more likely to become ill from Salmonella and to have severe symptoms compared to healthy adults and older children. So, it is particularly important to get the word out when a recall affects a popular kids’ brand.
How have Campbell Soup and Mondelez responded?
Both companies made a good choice in proactively issuing a voluntary recall before any illnesses were reported. The quick action they took should increase public trust in these brands.
Another positive is that both companies kept the message clear and simple. A brief, simple announcement giving just the facts is posted on the Pepperidge Farm website, and the Mondelez International and Ritz Crackers websites show similar messages. Both companies include links to sources of more information and provide images of the flavors and varieties being recalled, allowing customers to easily check for the foods in their pantries.
The response to this contamination incident shows the system is working. When companies spread the word quickly and effectively, they can help prevent a manageable problem from developing into a serious and potentially deadly crisis.