Food recalls due to undeclared allergens double over a decade

April 26, 2018

The number of food product recalls has increased significantly over the past couple of decades. A report published by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service takes an in-depth look at the trends and patterns of food product recalls in the United States from 2004 through 2013. The analysis considers four factors: the types of foods being recalled, the reasons for initiating the recalls, the severity of the risks posed by the recalled products, and the geographic distribution.

The researchers found that between 2004 and 2008, food recalls averaged 304 a year, but between 2009 and 2013, the annual average rose to 676. While an increase in the volume of food sold in the United States during this decade partially explains this statistically significant increase, other factors are also likely at play. For example, pathogen and risk detection technology substantially improved, regulatory oversight and enforcement increased, and Congress passed two major food policy laws: The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) and the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The following six food categories accounted for the majority of food recalls in 2004–2013:

  • Prepared foods and meals (excluding soups)—11.9%
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut products—10.9%
  • Baked goods (including packaged baked goods)—9%
  • Grains and grain products (excluding baked goods)—8.4%
  • Candy products—7.9%
  • Sauces, condiments, and dressings—5%

For each of these foods, except for nut products, the most common reason for initiating the recall was failure to declare major allergens. The most common reason for recalls of nut products was possible Salmonella contamination. While the number of food product recalls increased across every food category, the increase was statistically significant only for grain products, animal products, and prepared foods and meals.

Analyzing recalls by type of risk, 41% were the result of pathogen contamination (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coliSalmonella, etc.) and 27.4% were the result of undeclared allergens. While the number of recalls due to pathogen contamination did not increase significantly during this decade, the number of allergen recalls nearly doubled. The passage of FALCPA likely played a major role in the growing number of undeclared allergen recalls.

In addition, the researchers discovered that recalls of common food ingredients may have significant and exponential impacts on manufacturers and users of recalled ingredients. From 2004 through 2013, 22.4% of all recalls were the result of an upstream ingredient being recalled first.