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The difference between a food recall and a food outbreak

Prairie Fare: An outbreak means at least two people have the same foodborne illness from the same contaminated food or drink

As I pushed a cart through a retail store, my husband motioned for me to join him.

He was looking at something and grinning.

When I reached the kitchen towel display, I laughed. I perused the funny sayings printed on the towels.

He pointed at a towel that said, “Many have eaten here. Few have died.”

I think he would have bought the towel for me. However, I am not sure that would send the right message about our cooking to our guests. They probably suddenly would feel too full to eat anything.

That towel certainly would have been a good conversation starter, though.

In the last couple of years, foodborne illness outbreaks have made the news repeatedly. By definition, an “outbreak” means that at least two people have come down with the same foodborne illness from the same contaminated food or drink.

We also have heard about food recalls in the media. Recalls are different from outbreaks. A food recall is voluntary and initiated by a food manufacturer or distributor for products that could cause illness.

Food recalls remove foods from the marketplace because they may be unsafe or they have been misbranded. For example, a manufacturer might suspect that the food wasn’t heated sufficiently in a canning operation. The canned food with specific code numbers is recalled because of a potential risk for botulism toxin.

If a food becomes contaminated with a potential allergen such as peanuts, that also could prompt a recall. Allergens can cause life-threatening reactions among those with the specific allergy.

If metal shavings or plastic become part of food during the manufacture of the food, that could prompt a food recall. Metal shavings and plastic are considered physical hazards that could cause injury, including cuts or choking.

The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are the federal agencies responsible for ensuring food safety. The FDA regulates a variety of foods from cereal to cut fruit, and the USDA regulates most meat and poultry. Sometimes, the distinction between who regulates what can be confusing.

In 2018, many foods were implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks the FDA investigated. As I examined the long list, salmonella frequently was cited as the bacterial cause of outbreaks. It was linked to cake mix, shell eggs, pasta salad, cereal, precut melons, dried coconut and sprouts.

In 2018, E. coli was linked to leafy greens, including romaine lettuce.

When food has been implicated in an illness outbreak, grocery stores pull the products from shelves. Often they don’t know the source, so all brands of the food are pulled from shelves.

Consumers are warned through TV announcements, newspapers, websites and social media to discard the food or return it to the grocery store for a refund. When the product is “cleared” as safe, then grocery stores stock the items.

When I was buying the ingredients for this week’s recipe, my husband asked me if eating spinach was safe.

“Let’s test it out on you,” I replied with a grin.

I can tease him because we’ve been married for 25 years. Perhaps I should have bought that dish towel with the funny saying.

I knew that leafy greens were “in the clear.” I also would be cooking the spinach in the soup recipe I was adapting.

Visit ‘Nutrition and Food Safety’ on the NDSU website to learn more about nutrition, food safety and health (or Google NDSU Extension food and nutrition to find us). Sign up for our free e-newsletters to learn more, and don’t forget to register for our “Field to Fork” webinars (online seminars) to learn how to grow fruits and vegetables next summer.

In the meantime, have a comforting bowl of creamy soup this winter. My family gave it two thumbs up. I added more pepper to give it a kick of flavour.

Taste of Italy Soup

  • 12 ozs. Italian sausage links
  • 5 slices bacon
  • 2 c. chopped onion
  • 1 tbsp. garlic
  • 3 (15-oz.) cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 c. potatoes, peeled,quartered and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (optional, to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper (or more to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
  • 1-1/2 c. half-and-half
  • 4 c. raw spinach

Cut the Italian sausage “on the bias” (at a slant) and dice the bacon. Fry the sausage and bacon in a large pot, then drain excess fat. Add onions and garlic; sauté about five minutes. Add chicken broth, potatoes, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Heat until potatoes are tender (about 10 minutes). Stir in the half-and-half and spinach. Simmer briefly until spinach is tender and soup is heated through.

Makes eight servings. Without added salt, each serving has 240 calories, 11 grams (g) fat, 15 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 3 g fibre and 710 milligrams sodium.

This creamy soup is comforting on a cold winter night.
photo: NDSU

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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