Food recalls have dropped off during the pandemic, but no one is entirely sure why

Food recalls were down this year, but experts don't know why. The produce is on sale at the supermarket.

Joe Raedle is a photographer.

The nation's food supply was affected by the coronaviruses last year. Restaurants closed, manufacturers raced to implement new protective measures, and grocery stores were struggling to keep their shelves stocked.

The food safety system protects American consumers from what they eat.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture reported only a quarter as many recalls in 2020 as it did the previous year, and the agency remains behind its pre-pandemic pace.

The number of food recalls issued by the Food and Drug Administration decreased last year compared to the previous year, continuing a downward trend.

Food safety experts say it's not clear what this all means for consumers. A drop in the number of recalls could signal a system growing safer, but some fear it could mean that Pandemic disruptions have allowed potential risks to slip through the cracks. There has been no spike in the number of cases of food poisoning, and experts think that the number of recalls is shifting because of COVID-19.

Don Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University, told his graduate students that if they were doing an experiment, they needed to change one variable at a time. "Here, we've changed a lot of variables at once."

The food safety system was changed by COVID-19.

The way Americans ate during the early days of the Pandemic was changed by food shortages. The restaurants were closed before they returned to limited service. People spent more money at grocery stores.

The FDA and the USDA have new challenges to contend with, as a result of the changes. The two agencies were suddenly part of a whole-of-government response to a public health crisis that went far beyond food.

The FDA temporarily suspended most foreign inspections of food and other products in March 2020. The agency was involved in the response to the Pandemic and would later be responsible for examining the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

The USDA continued to inspect meat and poultry manufacturing facilities as usual, but prioritized certain areas for more frequent inspections based on local conditions and resources.

At the FDA, recalls fell by less than 75%.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued 32 recalls in 2020. It had 128 recalls the year before. The service has issued 47 recalls so far this year.

The decline is largely due to fewer incidents being reported to the agency. The FDA and the USDA conduct their own inspections, but rely on producers and consumers to flag issues with a given food product before a decision is made to pull it from shelves.

The decrease in reported incidents requiring recall analyses was likely due to a number of factors, including societal disruptions and consumer behavior during the Pandemic. If the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service identifies any meat or poultry products as adulterated or mis branded that are not under control of the firm and available for sale, the agency requests that the firm recall the product.

The fluctuations at the FDA seem to be less drastic.

The agency reported 499 food and cosmetics recalls in the fiscal year 2020. The 585 recalls recorded the year before are down from the 526 recalls recorded in fiscal year 2019.

The FDA has not determined a specific reason for the decrease in the number of recalls.

Ben Chapman, a professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State University, said the data does not make sense.

He said it was too early to tell. We don't really understand how things have changed in the midst of a Pandemic.

The numbers do not show a clear picture of food safety.

There are a variety of reasons for recalls, including the discovery of foodborne pathogens, as well as mislabeling that fails to alert consumers to the presence of possible allergens.

The nation's early detection system was partially down during the first few days of the Pandemic. If food production was stopped, there would be fewer opportunities for recalls at the USDA, as many meat processors closed down after workers tested positive for the coronaviruses.

Many of the FDA recalls that did occur were due to allergens, which may be related to the swine flu.

He said that if restaurants were closed, producers could make smaller packages of chicken breasts for sale in grocery stores.

He said that the change of scrambling for more labels to print could lead to confusion within the supply chain.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was passed in the 1990's, tightened safeguards for food production under the FDA's jurisdiction in an effort to prevent more foodborne illnesses rather than respond to them. Some of the act's rules only took effect in the last few years after it was signed into law.

More bad food is not a result of fewer recalls.

Even though recalls are down, that doesn't mean more bad food is in circulation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks cases of food safety related illnesses.

The CDC program that tracks 15% of the US population shows a decrease in the 2014–2018 2014–2018. Between the years of 2020 and 2019, the number of infections caused by the eight pathogens tracked by the CDC dropped by 29%.

The data comes with a caveat, that people with non-COVID-19 illnesses steered clear of hospitals during the spike in infections last year.