Why the egg recall was no yolk
By Jessica Levine
In August 2010 about a half billion eggs were carted off of store shelves and pulled from household refrigerators nationwide as the result of a recall implemented when over 1,000 people reported illness stemming from these tainted eggs. A recall, in brief, is a standard regulatory process by which a company or manufacturer pulls tainted or contaminated food products from the shelves of stores in order to prevent harm or illness of its consumers.
Food recalls are nothing new. Attempting to regulate the food industry has been a battle many have fought over the past century. Upton Sinclair, in his famous work The Jungle, set out to shed light on the plights of poorly waged and treated employees of the meat packing industry, but instead exposed the grotesque and highly unsanitary ways food was produced. The public response to The Jungle was immense, and as a result the masses vocalized their disgust with the state of the food industry. This influenced the government’s decision to pass the first food regulatory bill, The Food and Drug Act. Over the course of more than one hundred years, the food processing industry has improved far beyond its condition of Sinclair’s time. However, as we can see with the abundance of recalls today, all of its problems have yet to be solved.
The exact execution of a recall can sometimes be a bit complicated. One way a recall could be set into motion would be, if during an inspection of a food production site, the inspector were to notice something hazardous or not up to code. After further investigation, this would likely result in a recall of the product in question.
A recall can also occur after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is notified of large amounts of food-related illnesses in a particular area, as was the case in the recent egg recall. Professor Stewart Auyash of the Health Policy department at Ithaca College describes a potential scenario with the CDC even further, saying, “The CDC would not necessarily be involved but could be involved. For instance, if there was an outbreak of salmonella in [a] community it first would be reported by doctors to the health department, the health department would report it to the state health department and also likely to the FDA and maybe even the CDC. Then it gets to a point were the CDC will work with the FDA to try and determine what the cause of the salmonella outbreak was. They can narrow it down to whatever it was, then they can narrow it down further to the company.”
But what happens after this? How are the products actually taken off the shelves? From here on out the recall procedure depends on the individual policies of each supermarket. Recall procedures may vary according to vendors and are (ideally) relatively swift and succinct. According to a March, 2010 press release from Wegmans, for example, when a recall is first ordered by a company or manufacturer, the Wegmans corporate office is notified via an alert system used by many food manufactures, retailers and restaurant chains. After that first notification is received, the stores in turn are alerted about the recall through an internal website so that they can then physically remove all products from the shelves. Then, with the help of a customer database, the store tries to contact all customers who may have purchased these tainted goods, offering them refunds.
In some situations, however the safety of the costumer may be sidelined in order to maintain a company’s reputation. In a 2009 salmonella-based peanut recall that led to nine deaths, according to a March 2009 article from The New York Times, Westco Fruit and Nuts, Inc. owner Jacob Moradi claimed that there was no way to know if his company’s products were tainted, and on that basis, refused to recall the peanut products. “”They are asking me to commit suicide based on presumption. They have shown no proof,” Moradi said in an interview with ABC. This response is not often the case, but as the FDA does not have the power to force recalls, it is possible that a similar situation may occur yet again.
The regulations that arose from the publication of Sinclair’s influential novel were an important initial step in cleaning up the food processing industry. Even now, over a century later, there still needs to be some effort to clean it up even more, as seen by the amounts of food products being recalled today.
Jessica Levine is a freshman anthropology major who loves her incredible edible eggs. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org