Why Are So Many Food and Beverage Products Being Recalled? 

A Newsweek investigation finds that at least 350 food and beverage products are under recalls mandated by the Food and Drug Administration. A short list of these products includes cookies, shellfish, cucumbers, frozen pizzas, frozen fruits, pasta, salad kits, smoked salmon, hummus, shrimp, lemonade, granola bars, cantaloupes, and ice cream. 

It’s a long, extensive, and confusing list. Some products have been under recall since 2018, meaning the FDA has taken six years to find the issue, reinspect the goods, and confirm newer production meets its standards. 

Others remained on the list well after their producers addressed any sanitation concerns. Newsweek also reports, “Items like enoki mushrooms stayed live on the FDA website for more than a year… when the outbreak was declared over last year.”

It’s also unclear if some items were linked to hospitalization or other illnesses before being recalled. Newsweek’s list includes 31 meat, dairy, and egg products. These are partially regulated by the Food and Safety Inspection Service, a subagency of the US Department of Agriculture. Despite being recalled by the FDA, the FSIS does not report any illnesses or other noteworthy issues associated with these products. 

Perhaps most concerning, some of these recalls have been disastrous recently. As part of this list, the FDA recalled four infant formula producers, some of whom received official warning letters. The catastrophic infant formula shortage of 2022 began with one recall. Due to a single FDA-mandated recall, there is an ongoing national shortage of hypoallergenic infant formula. 

There are many reasons that products can be contaminated—and should be recalled or safety issues. But clearly, that’s only part of this story. Much of the problem boils down to incentives. 

Whether it’s regulating apples, formula, cancer drugs, or birth control, the FDA’s incentives as a regulatory bureaucracy are to minimize the risk of harmful goods reaching customers. Consequently, it lengthens, increases, and intensifies scrutiny over the goods it regulates—even to an excessive level. That’s a big reason the FDA’s recall list is long enough that the agency itself can’t keep current or accurate. 

Fortunately, with few exceptions, foodborne illnesses across the United States have decreased since 2009largely thanks to health and agricultural technology improvements. We have fewer reasons to be concerned about whether our food and beverages are safe to consume. On the flip side, we have more reasons to be skeptical about the regulators deciding this for us. 

Raymond J. March is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Assistant Professor of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University.
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