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a green striped background with different packets of food that have large red crosses over them
A selection of some recently recalled food (Image: The Spinoff)

KaiMay 22, 2024

Don’t eat that! Food recalls, explained

a green striped background with different packets of food that have large red crosses over them
A selection of some recently recalled food (Image: The Spinoff)

What happens when contaminated food accidentally makes it onto consumers’ shelves? Shanti Mathias explains the process of food recalls.

A small sign at the supermarket announcing a problem with a product you’ve never heard of in your life might be all you ever hear of a food recall. Or maybe, if it’s bad, the recall will make it to the media, as lead contamination of Chelsea Sugar did a few years ago. But how serious does food contamination have to get before a recall notice is issued? Here’s a quick explainer.

Who’s responsible for food safety in New Zealand? 

The Ministry for Primary Industries has a dedicated food safety unit that gives businesses guidelines and certifications for selling food. It also administers the system of food recalls, for which it has a dedicated email alert list that you can sign up to here. A food recall means there is a serious enough problem with a food product that consumers can return it to where they bought it from for a refund. 

Recalls are an expense that businesses accept as part of being authorised to sell food. This can place a burden on smaller businesses: for example, businesses have to write recall scenarios and submit them to MPI, creating plans about what they would do if something went wrong. Recalls can hit smaller businesses that use food ingredients in their products as well as those that sell them directly to consumers. Sugar recalls were devastating for several small bakeries, with one owner telling RNZ she expected to lose $50,000 from having to destroy stock made with 25kg bags of brown sugar. 

a hand holding a shopping list above a shopping trolley that contains milk bananas and spinach
It’s rare, but dangerous, for food you bought to contain contamination (Photo: Getty Images)

What has to happen for a recall notice to be issued? 

No matter how stringent food regulations are, there will be times when stuff slips through the cracks. Food is usually recalled because of one of three things: there is an object in the food that shouldn’t be there, like when an alert was issued recently over metal being found in supermarket-brand pasta; there is an allergen in the food that hasn’t been labelled; or there is a pathogen (a bacteria or virus) in the food that has been identified. In a statement, New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle said that recalls often happen at the trade level, before products reach consumers. “If products are already in people’s homes, a consumer-level recall is more appropriate,” he added.

The process is initiated by either complaints to MPI’s food safety hotline, food testing, the food business realising there’s an issue and telling MPI or reports from overseas. If MPI decides that the issue meets the bar for a recall, then it has to be publicised: the retailer has to display notices about the food for at least a month for customers to see, MPI broadcasts the information on its channels, media may write articles about the issue, especially if its widespread. Usually, these notices will identify the specific batch or date of food that has issues. That said, there are instances of food retailers not complying with recalls, like recent stories about the raw fruit juice seller who continued to sell her product, although her business was not registered under the Food Act. “God is my boss, not MPI,” she told Stuff

a shotting trolledy with a coin in the centre and bright green bubly background
If a product you bought is recalled, you can return it to the retailer for a refund Image: Tina Tiller

What if the food comes from overseas?

Last week, New Zealand Food Safety told Reuters it was aware of issues around imports of popular Indian spice blends; high levels of the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide, which is used for sterilising food but has been phased out in New Zealand, was found in these products being sold in other countries. The UK has already applied extra control measures to spice imports. It’s a case where the food regulator has learned about an issue due to international reporting – it could lead to a recall, but food testing or changing regulations could be a way to deal with the risk instead. 

“Recalls for imported food follow a similar process to locally produced food, with the additional steps of notifying authorities from the country of origin and relevant international agencies to ensure other countries are aware of the issue through the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN),” Arbuckle said.

So where is the bar set for a product to be recalled? 

Browsing through the recent list of recalls, it’s striking to note how few products might have been sold before a national recall was issued. Two supermarkets, for instance, mislabelled their made-in-store caramel peanut butter buns, and had to do a recall in case customers weren’t aware there were peanuts and sulphites in the mislabelled products. In both cases fewer than 12 packs of the product were sold. 

Food recalls are essentially about calculated risk: there’s a relatively low chance that one of 10 people who bought a pack of buns will be allergic to the unlabelled peanuts, but there’s still a chance – and for someone with a severe peanut allergy, the consequences could be dire.  “All recalls are supported by an assessment of risk which considers the severity of the issue and how many people could be affected,” Arbuckle said. “We always follow the evidence and feed that into our risk assessment as recalls develop so we can make adjustments where necessary.”

At the same time, ​​the way that food recalls are issued means that by the time a notice goes up, there’s a high chance the food will already have been eaten, or that the people who bought a product won’t see the notice, especially if only a few products are affected. There are also multiple examples of recalled food being removed from shelves and then put back by mistake, then needing to be recalled again.

That’s all great, but…. do food recalls actually work? 

Research into consumer trust shows that food recalls increase people’s sense that there are risks in the food they eat. For companies, the best way to improve trust is to acknowledge what went wrong and explain what they’re doing to make a difference. Research from Taiwan shows that repeat messages are important: the more people hear about food recalls from people they trust, the more likely it is that they will take the risk seriously and look for more information. Good information about food recalls creates a reinforcing cycle. 

While food recalls can seem like an unwieldy system and can’t prevent all kinds of harm, having regulations that make sure food is safe is really important. Melamine-contaminated formula made by a Chinese company part-owned by Fonterra was consumed by thousands of kids in China, causing a huge amount of harm. As this Stuff story that talks to a family 13 years later shows, the impact of the contaminated food is still being felt today. Arbuckle described food recalls as “a last line of defence” to protect food eaters and remove harmful products from sale. 

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