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Why all those huge food recalls are actually good news

I’ve been covering food recalls for years. And for years people have been asking me whether food recalls are on the rise. I usually answer no, it just seems that way.

But lately I’m starting to wonder. The recent flour recall, the sunflower seed recall and that massive frozen food recall are all far from the usual bagged spinach and ground beef we’re used to seeing, and they’ve been so far-reaching. Not only are we seeing a wider range of foods getting contaminated, but the scale of the recalls seems to be ever greater.

More: How not to get listeria — the food poisoning that means business

So we decided it was time to talk with expert Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm and founder of Food Safety News, to find out what’s really going on here.

SheKnows: Is it our imagination, or are food recalls on the rise in terms of both scale and frequency?

Bill Marler: I look at this from the perspective of handling these kinds of cases since the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak [Marler represented victims in a landmark lawsuit following the outbreak]. In many ways this was the beginning of the litigation. If you look before then, it seems like there were no E. coli outbreaks. But then, with the technology of genetic fingerprinting [which can link illnesses to pathogens], cases absolutely skyrocketed. It’s not like E. coli didn’t exist before. It’s just that it was under the radar.

Now, with all the listeria recalls happening and the listeria outbreaks we’re seeing, that really is in response to even better technology we’re using — whole genome sequencing. They’re using that technology to find listeria in plants, and the FDA is being really aggressive, especially in listeria cases, because it’s such a deadly pathogen.

In the last six months, with the Bluebell ice cream, the Dole spinach, all the recalls with sunflower seed kernels, the CRF frozen vegetables, all of that is happening because we can link those plants through technology. So even though it looks horrible — you can’t watch TV or [listen to the] radio without having one of these things in your face — it really is, in my view, a good thing, because it’s going to make these companies and the government adjust and drive these recalls down by fixing the problems.

SK: That flour recall was surprising. Why are we seeing recalls in foods not previously associated with outbreaks?

BM: Flour outbreaks have happened in the past. There was one in 2009 with Toll House cookie dough, and there was a smaller one last year linked to a pizza plant. Raw dough or raw flour can contain pathogens, but it is rare enough that people haven’t thought about it.

Now it’s another reason not to eat raw cookie dough. What’s interesting is that, given that flour is so ubiquitous in cooking and being used for lots of things in your kitchen, there probably are a lot more pathogen outbreaks linked to flour, but it’s used in so many things, you’re not necessarily linking it to the flour. The only reason they could link this back was because there were 38 people, and the common denominator is [that] they all had contact with that flour in the three or four days before they got sick.

More: Tips to avoid contaminated fruits and vegetables

I actually view these recalls as, the system is working. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it shows public health is working, and technology is working, and it’s going to force industry to do a better job.

From 1993 to 2000, about 90 percent of my work was dealing with E. coli linked to hamburger. I sued nearly every restaurant involved in an outbreak and recovered half a billion dollars. Today I have just one case in my office linked to hamburger.

[E. coli outbreaks] were almost an everyday occurrence, kind of like listeria is today. I have historical perspective — I’ve seen industry and government actually fix the problem. But you don’t fix it until it becomes overwhelmingly bad.

SK: Could it be that we’re testing more frequently or taking contamination incidents more seriously?

BM: In the 20-plus years that I’ve been doing this, the technology has gotten more sophisticated.

Twenty years ago, you really had to prove that you knew for certain that a person ate at Jack in the Box at a certain time [to link an illness to contamination]. Now you know the person consumed that product because there’s a whole genome match [to the pathogen]. These people who died years earlier, who we find were connected to an outbreak, it’s like their hands are reaching out from the grave. It’s chilling, but it’s incredibly accurate.

SK: After a food is recalled, when is it safe to start buying it again?

BM: Listeria is an incredibly sporadic bug, so it will harbor in a plant or in a piece of machinery, but only small pats of it may slough off into a product, and then they clean it, and then it comes back. That’s why you have up to eight people over a two-year period of time. But the risk is actually pretty low.

More: Tips for buying safer food in a recall-mad world

If you look at those people [sickened by the recent frozen food listeria outbreak], all of these people probably used the food in raw form… So the company was probably thinking, “Most people who use my product are going to be steaming it,” and they’re not wrapping their heads around the fact that people are making smoothies or using raw vegetables. The market has changed, and people consuming that product have to start paying more attention, and companies selling that product can’t assume people are cooking their product.

Every outbreak has the opportunity to teach us something new. Hopefully the company involved is paying attention and learning that flour can be contaminated and [that] frozen vegetables can be contaminated. Everyone’s making changes to make our food system safer.

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