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Amuse Bouche: Total recall

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

It’s one of the least desired pieces of mail we receive—the recall letter telling you there is an issue with your vehicle’s airbag, or maybe the brake system. You dread having to deal with it, yet you know it is paramount to the safety of you and anyone else who may be riding with you.

But all facets of our society deal with recalls on a daily basis. Last week, the country saw a recall of red onions, which seems benign enough, after all, it isn’t a component to your 5,000-pound vehicle zooming 80 miles per hour down I-90. But the potential for mass illness is often less than 48 hours away. 

For years, I received emails from the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as other sources which kept me updated on recalls of foods and food products—there is a distinction. The number of these I received weekly would surprise you, I’m sure, and the mass majority of them the public never hears about. 

While I have my criticisms of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the FDA, the response time and critical path to public recalls is unbelievable. The fact that virtually every one of these products never sees a grocery store shelf or inside of a restaurant before the general public is aware is truly amazing. And if they do make it onto a shelf, it isn’t for long. 

Here is a breakdown of steps and critical control points that are carried out often times before the public has any idea there is an issue.

A manufacturer or producer discovers the issue—this is usually learned or documented through a government required Hazzard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. Most food producers are required to have one by state and federal law, and though they are painstakingly tedious to create, they are an invaluable tool that ultimately saves lives.

Once discovered, the issue is reported to either the FDA or the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Next, inspectors from either the FDA or FSIS or even both agencies are dispatched as quickly as possible to the believed source of the contamination. 

At this point, the food item in question is tested to determine if is contaminated or not. If it is not contaminated by the scientific results of the FDA and the FSIS, the owner or producer may ultimately choose to recall the product regardless—either to avoid potential bad press or simply for peace of mind. 

If the food in question fails the food safety test, again, either the FDA or FSIS begin notifying individual health departments, starting on the local level, and progressing through counties, states, and eventually on a national stage. 

Simultaneously, as these notifications spread through the larger and larger health organizations, those health departments are notifying the CDC.

Ultimately, and here’s where you can see both the silly irony and the thoroughness of the process, the CDC notifies the FDA or FSIS again, bringing the informational loop full circle. Then they begin to notify the public, as well as the media, depending on the breadth and severity of the contamination.  

And as of the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, the FDA can intervene at any point of this process if it deems the situation calls for drastic action.

In recent decades, this process has become both cumbersome and over-protective. But this is largely due to the E. coli outbreak of 1993, traced back to Jack in the Box ground beef, where it turned out to be a matter of life and death for a handful of children.

My recommendation? Always follow the advice provided during food recalls. 

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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