Published on 10/30/02

Food recalls: What do they really mean?

By April Reese
University of Georgia

It seems that every day a new recall is announced, warning people of the dangers associated with eating certain foods. You hear these recalls so often they may sometimes fail to register.

That's not good.

"If a recall for food is announced, people should pay close attention," said Elizabeth Andress, an extension food safety specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"There are different kinds of recalls," Andress said. "And some can indicate a very serious situation."

Hamburger and other meat products, infected with hazardous bacteria like E. coli and Listeria, are the most commonly recalled foods, she said. Take these recalls very seriously.

A food recall is a voluntary step that a food's manufacturer or distributor takes to protect consumers, she said.

Recall classes

Food recalls fall into three classes based on the danger associated.

"Class I recalls are the most serious," Andress said. "These involve a health hazard in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause serious health problems or maybe even death."

A Class II recall, she said, is one with a remote probability of health problems from eating a product. With a Class III recall, eating the food won't cause a health problem.

An example of a Class III recall, she said, leaving "added water" off of the ingredient list. The product doesn't meet federal requirements for labeling. But it's not a health hazard.

If it is said to be a "precaution," it is most likely a Class II or Class III recall, Andress said. But even then, she urges consumers to find out more. Learn how serious the risk is to your health and what the government or company recommends you do with the food.

Check it out!

"People should go to the trouble to check their freezers, refrigerators and shelves for identifying information on products to make sure they don't consume the contaminated foods," Andress said. Then follow the directions for the recall if you want your money back.

When meat and poultry products are recalled, updated information is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the form of a recall notification report. These are on the Web at intr.htm.

The report includes the description of the food being recalled, the reason for the recall, the name of the producer, distribution information, any identifying codes, the recall class and people to contact.

Other food recalls, besides beef and poultry products, are handled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is generally not authorized to "order" a manufacturer to recall a food.

"Only when a medical device, human tissue product or infant formula poses a risk to human health does the law specifically authorize the FDA to prescribe a recall," Andress said.

FDA Recalls, Alerts and Enforcement Reports are on the Web at 7alerts.html and These Web sites give you all the information you need to identify and return the recalled product.

I already ate it. What now?

Some consumers worry they have already eaten a recalled food.

"In some cases, such as contamination with the toxin that causes botulism, it won't take long for symptoms to have appeared and the damage to already be done," Andress said. "However, in other instances, there may not be any harm."

Andress said some foods that have been recalled may never make you sick.

"Even in the case of some Class I recalls for bacterial contamination of food, proper cooking before consumption may remove the hazard," Andress said. "So, a consumer may have eaten a food before hearing about the recall and not gotten sick."

If you believe you've eaten food that's being recalled, contact the company or federal agency involved to learn what symptoms to expect.