The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in American History

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Listeria, salmonella, E. coli — food recalls are serious business

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If mishandled, beef can become infected with potentially deadly pathogens. 

Food recalls are no fun for anybody involved. Hundreds of millions of pounds of foods have been pulled from the market for various reasons in the past several decades. We’ve rounded up the 10 biggest recalls from this time.

The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in American History (Slideshow)

A food recall, by definition, is “any corrective action by a company needed to protect consumers from potentially adverse effects of a contaminated, adulterated, or misbranded product.” They can happen for a whole variety of reasons, some far more benign than others: A Class III recall has nothing to do with the food itself, and involves improper labeling; a Class II recall is issued when there’s a remote possibility of medically reversible health consequences, like when a potential allergen is included in the food but not labeled; and Class I, the most severe recall classification, is issued when consumption of the food in question carries a reasonable probability that it will result in serious illness or death, as in when ready-to-eat food is infected with E. coli.

Food recalls happen all the time, and the vast majority of them don’t make headlines. Recent examples include Kraft taking 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese off grocery shelves after metal was discovered in a box, Breyers and Pepperidge Farm recalling their products over unlisted allergens, 4,000 pounds of beef recalled over a mad cow disease scare, Hot Pockets pulling products that may have included “diseased and unsound” meat, and Chinese Walmarts recalling five-spice donkey meat (a popular product, apparently) for containing fox. Recalls happen more often that you think, and the majority of them take place because of undeclared potential allergens. Less than a quarter of food recalls are due to foodborne pathogens.

The vast majority of food recalls are voluntary; that is, the food company recognizes when an error has been made, or when a product doesn’t pass a test (be it for metal or pathogen contamination), but in extreme cases the federal government steps in. Most recalls are handled swiftly and efficiently, and most of the time nobody is sickened, because the system that’s currently in place is so well-managed. But occasionally there are huge recalls, ones related to problems that put consumers’ lives in danger and cost the company millions and millions of dollars. These are the 10 largest food recalls in history, ranked by the sheer volume of food affected.

#10 Wright Country/ Hillandale Farms Eggs, 2010

More than half a billion eggs were recalled in 2010 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked a salmonella outbreak to a plant in Iowa. More than 1,900 people were infected by the outbreak, but, thankfully, no deaths were reported.

#9 Menu Foods Pet Food, 2007

Wheat gluten linked to a Chinese supplier used by a pet food company called Menu Foods, was the source of a major recall in 2007. The gluten was contaminated with a chemical called melamine, which causes kidney failure when consumed. After the deaths of 14 cats and dogs, the company recalled about 60 million cans and packages of their pet food. 

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