The safety of the U.S. food supply is one of the main mandates of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). When there are outbreaks of disease or illness across the country, these agencies investigate to determine if there is a common cause. Recalls of food products due to safety and sanitation issues are common, but some food manufacturers are so large that a recall can impact the entire country. This, in turn, can cause millions of dollars in losses, including product destruction, sanitary improvements, and health care costs. Below are the five-largest food recalls in U.S. history.

Key Takeaways

  • Hallmark/Westland went bankrupt following an investigation into animal cruelty that led to a massive recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef.
  • Eight people died and hundreds were sickened as a result of a salmonella outbreak that was linked to products manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America.
  • After the recall of over a half-billion fresh eggs in 2010, Wright County and Hillandale Egg Farms improved their practices and continue to operate today.
  • Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation was the focus of a recall of more than 35 million pounds of ground turkey in 2011.
  • Two Chinese companies as well as their owners, and a U.S.-based wholesaler were indicted on charges following a massive recall involving pet food manufactured by Menu Foods.

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Beef Recall

Hallmark/Westland was a meatpacking company based in California involved in what's believed to be the largest beef-related recall in the United States. In February 2008, the culmination of an investigation into the slaughter practices of the company resulted in the recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef—much of it destined for school lunch programs in about 36 different states. The incident started with an undercover video that was distributed by the Humane Society of the United States. The video showed cows that were too ill to walk included in the slaughter—a practice banned under federal law to ensure that diseases like Mad Cow do not enter the food supply.

The company voluntarily recalled all beef produced at the facility from February 1, 2006, onward, but admitted that most of that meat had likely already been consumed. There were no reports of associated illness, but, because the animals were not properly inspected prior to slaughter, the Department of Agriculture pressured the company into the recall.

The company went bankrupt from recall-related costs. Hallmark/Westland and its owners were also forced to pay legal fees stemming from a federal lawsuit that alleged animal abuse.

Peanut Corporation of America

Peanut Corporation of America was founded in 1977 and based in Lynchburg, Virginia. The private company was family-run, with operations in several states, serving peanut and peanut butter products to schools, prisons, and health care facilities.

Known as one of the largest food calls of all time, this company was found to have knowingly shipped products containing salmonella a dozen times between 2007 and 2008. It was the source of a virulent strain of salmonella that was later linked to eight deaths and sickened over 600 people in 46 states as well as in Canada. The company not only made peanut butter but also peanut meal and paste that was further processed by manufacturers into other foods. After inspectors from the CDC and the FDA identified the source of the contamination, it issued what became one of the largest food recalls ever—ultimately leading to more than 3,200 products being recalled. Peanut Corp. eventually filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February 2009.

The impact of the recall spread far beyond the boundaries of Peanut Corp. products. Consumers avoided many other brands of peanut butter that were not affected by the recall, which dropped sales of peanut products substantially between 2008 and 2009. This impacted many companies and organizations from peanut farmers and manufacturers to retailers and even food banks. The financial damage to the peanut industry was estimated to be more than $1 billion.

You can find information on recalls from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Wright County/Hillandale Farms Eggs

Salmonella was also at the base of the 2010 recall of over a half-billion fresh eggs originating from Iowa-based Wright County Egg and another related company, Hillandale Farms. The CDC began investigating outbreaks of salmonella in early 2010 and eventually tracked it to the WrightCounty plant. The CDC noted over 1,900 reports of illness connected with the outbreak. No deaths were reported as a result of the outbreak.

The FDA developed and implemented new egg safety rules, but not in time to correct the poor sanitation at the WrightCounty businesses. A year prior to the recall, Wright's owner, Jack DeCoster, faced multiple counts of animal cruelty related to the treatment of chickens on his farms. He also paid millions of dollars in fines. After the recall, both WrightCounty and Hillandale improved their sanitation and animal health practices and continue to operate today.

Cargill Ground Turkey

Arkansas-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation issued a recall of over 35 million pounds of ground turkey in August 2011 due to salmonella contamination. The contaminated meat was responsible for one death and the sickening of over 90 people. The plant shut down for a week and reopened only when it had found and corrected the source of contamination and had passed a Department of Agriculture inspection. In less than a month after re-opening, inspectors had a positive hit on the same salmonella strain in the company's ground turkey, prompting a much smaller recall.

Menu Foods Pet Food

Food destined for pets can also contain adulterants, and that was the case in 2007 when Canada's Menu Foods recalled several brands of dog and cat food that were produced on-site. The company was one of North America's largest wet dog and cat food maker. The issue was the wheat gluten included in these foods that came from a Chinese company. It was eventually determined that the gluten contained melamine, an industrial chemical used in the making of plastics.

Identifying the problem took much longer than most human cases of illness because there is no unified reporting system for animal deaths and illnesses. As reports of kidney failure in dogs and cats started to be gathered by veterinary organizations, the FDA stepped in to investigate, ultimately tracing the food to the plant in Canada. Reported animal deaths vary drastically, but the FDA received over 10,000 complaints and were alerted of at least 14 deaths. The recall involved more than 50 brands of dog food and more than 40 brands of cat food. In the end, two Chinese companies and their owners were indicted in U.S. federal court over the incident, as well as a U.S.-based wholesaler. Menu Foods was purchased by Simmons Pet Food in 2010.

The Bottom Line

Food recalls are a critical step to ensure that the nation's food supply is safe. In many cases, large-scale recalls can bankrupt a company, not only in the food destroyed but also due to the loss of confidence by consumers in its products. Collateral damage often occurs to other manufacturers in the same industry and to retail stores that sell the product.