The cost of a recall

Posted in Consumer, Food Safety, Food Security, Food Systems on Oct 10, 2018

Food recalls happen for a myriad of reasons with contamination, failure to declare allergens, and mis-labelling as the usual culprits. The consequences of these human errors (or system failures) are both a risk to human health, and food wastage, as food, unfit for human consumption, is withdrawn from the supply chain.

A great deal is written about the negative health impact of consuming contaminated or substandard food, and rightly so. After all, we should be able to consume food safely, and, we should hold those who produce unsafe food to account. Less is written about the impact on society from the wastage that occurs as a result of the need to recall a food product or ingredient.

The most recent food recall, the JBS beef recall, is massive: over 6.5 million pounds of potentially contaminated beef (over 2.9 million kg) was recalled from 16 US states. At the time of writing, nearly 60 people had been sickened.

The offending beef came from one facility in Arizona and, it is speculated, that the origin of the contamination was from dairy cows culled from dairy herds. This hypothesis is based on the type of contamination. Most frequently we hear of E. coli as the cause of a meat recall, but this recall is different as the contaminant, Salmonella enterica serotype Newport, is increasingly seen in dairy cattle. When a dairy cow becomes sickened with Salmonella it may not show overt symptoms other than a drop in milk production - which is often a trigger point for a farmer’s decision to cull a cow. One report suggests that over 50% of large dairy facilities in the US (with more than 500 cows) are Salmonella-positive. Slaughterhouses are not required to test for Salmonella and as dairy cow meat makes up 20 percent of the US ground beef market, there seems to be a perfect storm for meat contamination and food safety concerns. It is, as one author pointed out, a sad fact that “a sick dairy cow is more likely than a healthy one to make its way into our food” . Salmonella in dairy cows is not a human health issue as milk is pasteurized, however, when that animal transitions from dairy production to a meat source, it becomes an issue; as meat does not undergo that same safety step.

The cost of this particular recall for the food company is likely to be significant. The average cost of a recall is around $10 million USD – but that is just the direct costs of the recall and doesn’t include loss of market share through brand damage. It is also a figure that is often touted for small to medium enterprises; the current recall is far from small. An important point to note in this case, is that the company did undertake this recall voluntarily.

It all seems a bit abstract – as a consumer you may have to throw away that packet of hamburger patties from the freezer and so, on an individual level, the recall doesn’t seem to be that much of a big deal. But, it most certainly is, when we look at the numbers: 6,500,966 pounds of meat have been recalled. It is estimated that around 40% of the live weight of an animal becomes meat products for human consumption. If the entire animal had been converted to beef mince and you get around 490 pounds of boneless trim from each animal, then the current recall equates to 13,267 animals slaughtered.

According to FoodTank, it takes 1,799 gallons of water to create one pound of beef. If you extrapolate that amount by the number of pounds of beef recalled, there would be enough water to fill 17,720 Olympic sizes swimming pools. In other words, the recall costs resources, and, coincidentally, the state of Arizona seems to be short on water (assuming that the cattle were from Arizona and not trucked in from other states) . Resources used up in the production of food that cannot be consumed is just an environmental cost with no upside.

Another way to look at the impact of a recall is to think about what the food would have contributed, had it been safe to consume. The UK’s NHS recommend that adults consume no more than 70gm of meat per day ; assuming that much is consumed every day of the week (490 gm or 1.08 pounds), then the amount of meat withdrawn from the food supply chain would have fed over 6 million people for one week (the entire population of Maryland or the entire country of Singapore) or around 116,000 people for a whole year.

So, what do we do? First some caveats: human health must always come first and should be the priority of those charged with ensuring the safety of food systems. Safe and thorough preparation of food can decrease your risk of becoming sick from contamination (this is another good reason to avoid medium-rare hamburgers). However, as a society we should be asking questions of this and any other food recall – what is the actual cost to human health, resource consumption, environmental degradation, confidence in food systems, food insecurity, and the costs of food production? Finally, is enough being done to decrease the incidence of recalls, or, should we be demanding more comprehensive stewardship of food systems by regulators, producers and by us, as consumers?