There were 456 food recalls in the U.S. in 2017, down from 764 the previous year. Most recalls are issued as a precaution in order to prevent an epidemic. However, sometimes contamination in food can go unnoticed, leading to hospitalizations and even death. Disturbingly, some companies have knowingly distributed contaminated products, which has led to some of the nation’s most tragic foodborne illness outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in six Americans become ill from foodborne diseases each year. About 128,000 people end up hospitalized and 3,000 die.
24/7 Wall St. identified the worst recalls of all time by reviewing the events that caused the most deaths, hospitalizations, and cases of illness.
The most common foodborne illnesses include salmonella, listeria, and Escherichia coli, or E. coli.
Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain for up to seven days. Most people infected with the bacteria recover without treatment. Listeria, or Listeriosis, is an intense infection particularly harmful to pregnant women, newborns, and those who are 65 and over. E. coli can cause myriad issues, as well including severe diarrhea. The most severe strain may lead to kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. All of these foodborne illnesses can be fatal if not treated properly.
Some foodborne illness outbreaks do not lead to a recall. For example, a recent outbreak of E. coli was found in romaine lettuce growing in the Yuma region in Arizona. Because this crop was not sourced from one particular company, but rather a stretch of farmland, a public warning was issued.
Foodborne illnesses are not always the most common reason for a recall. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., a spokesperson from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said most recalls are done voluntarily and issued as a preventive measure. In other cases, a recall is administered because the product label isn’t transparent about the ingredients it comprises or could comprise.
“A majority of recalls are undeclared allergens in food,” said the spokesperson. The FDA requires food manufacturers to label their products honestly, and this includes listing major food allergens. If not, the manufacturer must recall the product until the label is changed.
24/7 Wall St. identified the worst food recalls of all time by reviewing a variety of internet sources, including media outlets that reported the recall and its aftermath. These events were ranked by number of deaths, hospitalizations, and people affected by the contaminated product. All of these figures primarily came from the CDC and the FDA.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the contaminated cantaloupes in the Jensen Farm 2011 Listeria outbreak as originating from Rocky Ford, Colorado. In fact, the farmer falsely advertised the fruit as coming from Rock Ford.