The safety of the U.S. food supply is one of the main mandates of the Federal Department of Agriculture (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, causing 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.
Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Beef Recall
In February 2008, the culmination of an investigation into the slaughter practices of Hallmark/Westland in California resulted in the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, much of it destined for school lunch programs. The incident started with an undercover video, distributed by the Humane Society of the United States, that showed cows that were too ill to walk being included in the slaughter. This practice is banned under federal law to ensure that diseases, such as 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 likely had already been consumed. There were no reports of illness connected to this recall, but, because the animals were not properly inspected prior to slaughter, the Department of Agriculture pressured the company into the recall.
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 and in Canada. Peanut Corp. not only made peanut butter but also peanut meal and paste that were further processed by manufacturers into other foods. After the CDC and FDA inspectors 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 had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February of 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 in 2008 and 2009. This impacted many companies and organizations, including peanut farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and even food banks. Estimates of the financial damage to the peanut industry top $1 billion.
Wright County/Hillandale Farms Eggs
Salmonella was also at the base of the 2010 recall of over a half-billion fresh eggs originating from the Iowa-based Wright County Egg and 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 and, thankfully, no deaths.
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, and 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
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 75 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 Menu Foods Inc. recalled several brands of dog and cat food that were produced on site. 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.
The identification of 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 Menu plant in Canada. Reported animal deaths vary drastically, but the FDA received over 10,000 complaints and were alerted of at least 14 deaths. 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 Inc. was purchased by Simmons Pet Food in 2010.
The Bottom Line
Food recalls are a critical step in ensuring 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.