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In 2013, recalls of food products in Europe increased by 5%, compared to 2012, due primarily to the increased number of recalls in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.[1] Typically, if a product has a major problem, all products in that category are heavily scrutinised by the industry, regulatory personnel and consumers.

Should a specific food scandal take place, the industry starts checking out its sources and products. Consumers and regulatory personnel check and question anything bought or sold. If a problem is discovered, the product is recalled, even if the law does not require a recall, because the industry wants to protect itself from negative media attention and possible legal action. Making the recall public during this period of time helps consumers think of the problem as an industry issue, not a specific company issue, so that no one company is highlighted. Typically, consumers purchase at reduced levels or stop buying the product. In time, the industry resolves the problem and any offending companies are sanctioned and/or prosecuted. Food products do not necessarily have more negative issues than in previous years because, in all industries, recalls have been steadily trending upwards for some years now due, to an increasingly cautious approach to any problems in the food supply chain.

Some of the issues driving this approach are increased regulation, for example allergen labelling regulations have prompted a large number of recalls. The marketplace is now global, so an issue becomes one for multiple countries. As a result, more regulatory agencies will check the product with an increased likelihood of locating the problem.  Should one country find a problem, they will notify others. Additionally, traditional media attention has shifted, towards an increase in social media. Hence, consumers and consumer groups are more aware of the products they are using and are more likely to take action against an offending product and the company associated with it.

Food recalls take place every day. In the European Union (EU) these recalls are published through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)[2]. In 2012, Europe’s alert system was activated 8,797 times. The Food Safety Agency in the United Kingdom (UK) publishes the food alerts on their website.[3] In the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) both regulate different categories of food and publish recalls and warnings on a website, recalls.gov. These recalls and alerts are combined on a second website, foodsafety.gov.[4] Most government agencies now publish food recalls and alerts. 

In spite of events such as the horsemeat scandal, many of the recalls associated with food products are concerned with allergen labelling issues and various types of other labelling flaws[5]. Other issues include substances in a product destined for one country, or area of the world, which may be banned in another, such as pesticides or common food ingredients. Similarly, there are microbiological contamination recalls for Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, as well as mycotoxin recalls and physical contaminants such as glass, plastic, metal or waste.[6] 

Additionally, there are economic recalls due to the substitution of cheaper ingredients in food and feed. Cheaper food oils instead of more expensive food oils, such as olive oil, seafood species substitution and adding cheaper juices to products instead of their more expensive equivalents. These economic recalls are very noticeable to consumers. This type of recall is in response to possible danger to public health, caused by a desire to increase profit by unlawful means.

The food industry has been taking action for many years with auditing, inspecting and testing of foods and facilities. Product and ingredients are being tracked from origin through to finished products. Many countries now require traceability of food and ingredients throughout the food supply chain.[7] This in turn has led to increased regulation and criminal penalties being imposed in the fight against food fraud, whether economic or criminal.

Unfortunately, regulations and penalties are unlikely to completely eliminate food fraud, which is why the industry and regulatory agencies must be forever vigilant in order to provide safe products to consumers.          
 
For more information visit SGS Food Safety or contact

Jim Cook
Consumer Testing Services
Food Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Manager
SGS – North America, Inc.
291
Fairfield, NJ 07004
t:  +1 (973) 461-1493

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/19/faulty-goods-recalls-rise-after-horsemeat-scandal

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/rapidalert/index_en.htm

[3] http://www.food.gov.uk/enforcement/alerts

[4] http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/index.html

[5] http://newsletter.sgs.com/eNewsletterPro/uploadedimages/000006/sgs-safeguards-196313-recent-us-fda-recalls-60-percent-due-to-undeclared-allergens-a4-en-13.pdf

[6] http://www.haccpeuropa.com/food-recalls

[7] http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/industry/safetystandards/traceability/pages/default.aspx