• Recent Conagra, Hormel, and Tyson recalls highlight physical contamination
• Metal, glass, and plastic pieces can pose risks for backyard barbecues
Metal in Hormel’s SPAM, bone in Conagra’s beef steak, plastic in Koch Foods beef patties.
These are just some of the most recent costly recalls showing how potentially tooth-cracking “extraneous materials” are increasingly finding their way into processed foods.
But the recent spate of costly recalls—which can involve hundreds of thousands of individual items on a national scale—doesn’t signal a faltering food supply system, lawyers and food industry professionals tell Bloomberg Law.
In fact, food makers are using an expanding array of both old and new technologies to detect and remove foreign objects from products, including high-powered magnets, sifters, metal detectors, and video scanners.
Rather, they say, consumer awareness, stricter enforcement, industry vigilance, and enactment of a 2011 federal safety law are the reasons for the surge.
The recalls also demonstrate, however, that even sophisticated food protection measures can fail.
Extraneous materials ranked fifth among 25 reasons for all food recalls from 2004 to 2013, trailing only undeclared allergens, salmonella, listeria, and undeclared substances, USDA’s Economic Research Service reported in April.
Th incidence was higher still for recalls of meat, poultry, and seafood products, where foreign matter contamination trailed recalls for “other reasons,” processing defects, and mislabeling.
An average of 17 foreign material recalls occurred each year from 2004 to 2008, and increased to more than 33 from 2009 to 2013, the USDA said.
The report attributed the overall uptick to an increase in the volume of food in the U.S., enhanced pathogen detection systems, and better government oversight.
Another report, this one from an Illinois-based company that assists businesses with quality control and waste disposal, paints an even more troubling picture of foreign material recalls.
Stericycle Inc., in Lake Forest, IlI., reports in a study that, in the first quarter of 2018, heavy metals were the top reason for all food recalls, even though overall recalls declined.
The Stericycle Recall Index also found that foreign material accounted for 53 percent of recalls in FDA-regulated foods for the first quarter of 2018, 78 percent of which were for metal fragments.
Hormel, Conagra, Koch Foods
Some of the most recent recalls involve high-profile food companies.
Tyson Foods Inc. recalled 3,120 pounds of chicken June 8 because the product could contain plastic pieces.
Hormel Food Corp. recalled in May more than 228,000 pounds of canned pork and chicken, including popular SPAM products, after customers complained of metal fragments.
Conagra Brands Inc. recalled 135,000 pounds of beef steak in April because of bone fragments and “three reports of minor oral injury.”
The same month, Koch Foods Inc. withdrew 119,480 pounds of beef patties, citing consumer reports of “thin blue plastic pieces.”
And Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. called back 101,310 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken patties in February when customers reported encountering bits of rubber.
Detection and Reporting
“My sense is that we’re not really seeing more of these cases,” defense lawyer Sarah Brew, of Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis, told Bloomberg Law.
“I think what we’re seeing is that in light of FSMA, companies are creating more robust policies and taking more prompt and public corrective actions,” said Brew, who represents manufacturers in high-profile foodborne illness litigation.
The Food Safety Modernization Act is a 2011 federal law that shifted the agency’s focus from responding to foodborne illness outbreaks to preventing them.
Food safety lawyer Fred Pritzker, of Pritzker Hageman in Minneapolis, agreed. Litigation over these recalls is infrequent, he said.
“Most manufacturers have systems in place to detect foreign bodies in foods,” said Pritzker, who regularly represents plaintiffs in foodborne illness cases. “No manufacturer ever wants to do a recall.”
For Melanie Neumann, the recalls reflect safety consciousness.
“The food industry is doing a better job of detection, and they’re doing the right thing by reporting it to the appropriate regulatory authority,” said Neumann who heads up Neumann Risk Services LLC, a risk management firm in Frankfort, Ill., that advises food businesses.
But Neumann acknowledged that the issue remains a high priority for food producers.
“If you have a physical problem that causes an injury,” the FDA and USDA “will call you on it,” she said.
Sticks and Stones
Foreign objects generally get into food in any of three ways, said Robert Brackett, professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
“Some of this happens with growers, such as sticks and stones and broken pieces of fencing,” said Brackett, formerly an FDA microbiologist and after that a vice-president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for food, beverage and consumer product companies.
Food processing plants, where metal cutters may break and plastic bulk ingredient containers fall, are another source, he said.
And workers provide yet another contamination route. “That’s why good manufacturing practices bar workers from wearing rings and other jewelry,” Brackett said.
The federal food law, FSMA, has spawned an industry focused on helping food producers prevent and cope with such scenarios.
X-Ray Visible Pens
Innovations include real-time airborne pathogen detectors, optical food-sorting systems, and metal-detectable and x-ray visible pens. These last items are to detect when a chart-filling food worker bends over and accidentally drops a pen into a vat.
The detection technologies, including artificial intelligence, is increasingly taking the place of human visual inspection, Neumann, the risk manager, said.
“What I see in my clients are multiple controls put in place,” Neumann said. They typically include rare earth magnets that scan bulk deliveries, mid-stream sifters “to find things the magnets didn’t catch,” and a metal detector at the end of the production line.
Brew, the defense lawyer, added that “some plants that process leafy greens have detectors that sense chlorophyll, and if a stick or a rock goes by where it senses no chlorophyll, the foreign matter falls into a trap.”
Chlorophyll is a green pigment, present in all green plants, that absorbs light to provide energy for photosynthesis and growth.
But when safeguards fail and a nationwide recall follows, litigation is rare, the lawyers said.
That’s unlike the personal injury lawsuits that often follow multistate outbreaks of salmonella and other life-threatening bacterial pathogens.
“These tend to be much more discrete incidents and usually don’t involve serious injury,” Pritzker, the plaintiffs’ lawyer said.
But he cautioned that choking, severe lacerations, and digestive tract perforations can result in litigation.
Companies typically handle complaints in-house, Brew said.
“I think in my 15-year experience in food safety litigation I’ve been retained two times in this kind of case,” she said. “It’s usually a one-off claim that’s resolved by a company’s claims department.”
Even so, personal injury cases aren’t unheard of.
A Virginia man claims in a pending suit that he badly fractured a tooth after biting down on a “small rock” in a bag of potato chips from a Panera Bread Co. restaurant.
The suit filed in 2017 in Virginia Circuit Court alleges negligence by both Panera and KLN Family Brands, a confection manufacturer based in Perham, Minn.
And a federal lawsuit filed in January alleges a woman “suffered severe injuries to her mouth and jaw” after biting down on a large bone in a chicken nugget served at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant.
That complaint, pending the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, seeks damages from the restaurant chain and its supplier, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.
Panera and Chick-Fil-A didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.