Meat Safety: More Than Just E. coli
By Emefa Monu, Ph.D.
When a recall occurs due to a food safety issue, the first thing that enters most people’s minds is pathogenic organisms, such as Listeria, Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Second would be extraneous material such as metal or plastic fragments. Although these are serious issues, in recent years, the majority of food safety-related recalls have actually been due to the undeclared presence of foodborne allergens.
In the U.S., eight major food allergens cause more than 90 percent of food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Worldwide, sulfur dioxide/sulfites, celery, gluten-containing grains, mustard, sesame seeds and lupine are also significant allergens. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined there was an 18 percent increase in food allergies between 1997 and 2007 in children under the age of 18, and it was estimated in 2014 that 4 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from food allergies, although some studies have put that number as high as 8 percent. This increase has spurred more research into the area, with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases intending to award more than $42 million to a Consortium of Food Allergy Research to treat these types of allergies.
For those who suffer from food allergies, symptoms can range from mild to severe, and even life threatening. As there is no known cure for food allergies, avoidance is the only major approach sufferers have to prevent these attacks. For this reason, it is key that food companies provide accurate ingredient information on their product labels.
In July 2017 alone, there were 14 U.S. Food and Drug Administration-related food recalls (not including dietary supplements). Of these 14 recalls, 8 were due to undeclared allergens, including eggs, milk, nuts and soy, in products ranging from cookies and protein bars to beverages, soups, dips and beans. Although no meat or poultry is considered a major food allergen, meat and poultry products are not immune to this type of recall. A variety of processed meat products, such as breaded cutlets, nuggets, hot dogs and meat sauces, may be formulated with ingredients considered allergens. Many of these products include milk powder or wheat protein, and therefore these ingredients and any other included major food allergens must be declared on the label.
Recalls and Repercussions
The consequences of a major food recall are illustrated by an incident in mid-2017. In June, Tyson Foods Inc. had to recall approximately 2,485,000 pounds of a variety of ready-to-eat breaded chicken products because of the presence of milk, which was not declared on the product labels. This was, in fact, part of an even larger recall caused by one ingredient supplier, which involved nine food processing companies and more than 3,780,000 pounds of product by the end of June. The products ranged from breaded chicken products to chicken salad, spaghetti and meatballs, sausages and a variety of other beef products.
This incident highlights many issues pertinent to modern-day meat safety. First, the recall was due to an allergen. As already mentioned, consumers (and often processors) are most worried about foodborne pathogens when it comes to meat safety because of the severity of infections caused by pathogenic bacteria and the media coverage of such cases. For example, more than 20 years ago, an E. coli outbreak caused by undercooked hamburgers served at Jack in the Box led to 171 hospitalizations and four deaths (primarily children) and so is still remembered vividly. The meat industry is not immune to the hazard of food allergen-related recalls, however.
Second, the sheer size of the recall was staggering and significant. Over the years, companies have expanded product distribution, which has increased the number of multi-state recalls. Companies have also been able to manufacture food more efficiently because of new equipment and automation, enabling them to generate product at a rapid rate. The size of the recall was due to the fact that the underlying cause was an ingredient supplier rather than a company that produced a final product. This means that the recall affected not just one company but several. As meat companies expand their businesses to include more further-processed foods with myriad ingredients rather than solely the raw meat cuts sold in the past, there is increased reliance on the trustworthiness of suppliers for product safety as well as quality.
So what can the meat industry do to reduce these kinds of expensive recalls? The easiest option is to keep track of labels and update them as needed. In several cases, recalls have been caused by incorrect, obsolete labels being affixed to the product after a change in formulation, or by misprinted labels. Having personnel check the labels before they are loaded into the labeling machine as well as matching outgoing product against the current ingredient formulation will mitigate this. It is also important to have a good relationship with your approved supplier. If communication occurs regularly with the supplier, it is more likely they will inform the processor of changes in formulation in a timely manner. This may also include requesting current specification sheets and occasional visits to the supplier plant.
In short, food allergens are a major safety concern for a segment of the population, yet it is not always possible to completely avoid including any of the eight major food allergens in a product. The key is declaring their presence clearly on the product label. In the short run, a company will save the money and the manpower that will be devoted to recalling the product. In the long run, being careful about checking labels for allergens will save the brand from the negative publicity generated by the kinds of headlines about yet another food recall that consumers have come to both expect and dread in equal measure.
Emefa Monu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of food science at Auburn University.
1. Branum, A and DO Lukacs. 2008. NCHS Data Brief No. 10.
2. Gupta, R et al. 2011. “The Prevalence, Severity and Distribution of Childhood Food Allergy in the United States.” Pediatrics 128(1):e9–17.