Is food manufacturing becoming too complex? Millions of pounds of processed food sold by Conagra, Tyson and Gourmet Boutique have been recalled due to the presence of an undeclared allergen: Milk.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a supplier notified the three manufacturers that bread crumbs that had been sold to the companies apparently had milk in them, but this allergen was not declared in the product ingredients.
Under federal law, companies must declare specific allergens, such as milk, on product labels. The USDA is urging consumers who have purchased any of the products listed to either return them to the store or throw them out.
About 700,000 lbs of Conagra products are listed under the company's recall, including Chef Boyardee pasta products. Approximately 295,000 lbs of breaded chicken cutlets produced by Gourmet Boutique are suspected to have the allergen. Tyson Foods' recall was the largest at 2,485,000 lbs of ready-to-eat chicken products. Tyson's products were sold for institutional use, including at schools, and are not available at supermarkets.
Food recalls have been on the increase recently, raising concerns as to whether global supply chains are becoming too complex . There have already been more than 30 food recalls since January, including several for contamination from listeria and e-coli. According to recent studies, the number of food recalls in the United States has quadrupled in the last five years and that spike in incidents is being attributed in part to the increasing globalization of supply chains that must keep pace with local and national food policies.
But the increasing risk to consumer health is only one of reasons that food recall alerts are concerning, notes Food Safety Magazine. The other is the sheer cost of having to recall thousands -- or in the case of Tyson's recent recall, millions -- of pounds of food.
"The average cost of a recall to a food company is $10 [million] in direct costs, in addition to brand damage and lost sales," said the magazine. The statistics are according to a study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. The publication notes that those costs may be even higher for large, multi-national companies.
This isn't the first time this year that companies have had to issue a recall due to undisclosed milk products in the manufacturing process. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) records indicate that recalls for unidentified milk in products were occurring as early as January this year and took place in April and May as well through several smaller manufacturers.
But the incidents also raise and interesting question about recalls for the types of products that often are made with milk and often do have milk declared on the product label. Is recalling and disposing of millions of pounds of food (that we're told would be safe if not for the undeclared allergen food product) the only way to fix food processing mistakes?
There's a fair amount of disagreement in the medical community about just how many children (and individuals in general) suffer from milk allergies. Many milk allergies are now suspected to be related to lactose intolerance, a condition that is normally not life-threatening and fairly prevalent in adults.
Between 2 and 3 percent of children in the U.S. are allergic to milk (between 1.4 million and 2.2 million children, although scientists point out that in many cases, milk allergies resolve before the child becomes a teenager).
But the USDA's reason for encouraging recall has nothing to do with how many children could be exposed to allergic reactions. It has to do with ensuring consistency, a major factor in ensuring a safe food supply. As one who experiences milk and gluten allergies, the recall process is understandable. But it still seems a bit like closing the door after the horse has left the barn. It does little to convey to the public that the next shipment of food on grocery shelves or in school cafeteria will be free of allergens.
The Trump administration is promising less, not more oversight in product manufacturing. From the looks of it, that's a concern when it comes to ensuring that supply chains that reach across the world can guarantee that those most at risk from food allergies can rely upon a well vetted and regulated food supply.
Flickr image: Tyrone
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.