Food Recalls: Causes and Dangers   

Food Recalls: Causes and Dangers

Raw chicken that's been recalled. Gloved hand is holding a petri dish with bacteria.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Harry Kopolovich, M.D.

When manufacturers discover that their food may make people ill, they issue recalls.

A food safety recall is an alert to help people avoid getting sick. If you’ve purchased food that’s later recalled, it’s important not to eat it. You may not want to waste food, but it’s safer to return or dispose of recalled items.

“Some foods that are recalled contain dangerous contaminants that could cause food poisoning,” says Harry Kopolovich, M.D., chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “Other foods may contain unlisted allergens or foreign objects.”

Common Causes of Food Recalls

Manufacturers voluntarily recall food products when they may be hazardous to customers. There are several reasons why this may happen.

Recalled foods may be:

  • Contaminated with salmonella, listeria, E. coli or other bugs
  • Mislabeled
  • Made with allergens that aren’t listed on the label
  • Accidentally laced with metal shavings, glass shards, plastic or other foreign objects 

The top three reasons why foods were recalled during 2021 in the U.S. were:

  • Product contamination (48%)
  • Misbranding (27%)
  • Unreported allergens (16%)

Some food recalls only affect products sold or distributed in one state or region. Other recalls affect foods that are sold nationwide.

Common Foods That Are Recalled May Include:

  • Fresh produce (fruits and vegetables)
  • Dairy products
  • Seafood (fish and shellfish)
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Processed meat
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Baked goods

Recalls only affect specific items – occasionally only those with certain expiration dates. Typically, if one brand’s products are affected; other brands are safe.

“Food recall announcements should list the recalled product’s brand name, lot number and expiration date,” says Dr. Kopolovich. “If the food you have matches the announcement, don’t serve or eat it.”

Common Risks of Eating Recalled Food

It’s dangerous to consume recalled food. People may become sick, need to be hospitalized or even die, in certain cases.

Eating recalled foods may cause digestive woes or allergic reactions. If the food contains foreign substances, it could scrape the digestive tract from within.

Common dangers linked to eating recalled food may include:

  • Food poisoning
  • An allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock
  • Internal bleeding or damage to the esophagus, stomach or intestines

What to Do if You Have Recalled Food at Home

Some food recalls are so widespread, they make the evening news. Others are less well known, unless you hear about it from friends.

Different government agencies have websites where food recalls are listed. To find out details about recalled foods, you can visit:

If you think your food was recalled, check the lot number and expiration date. You may or may not have a part of the brand’s affected batch.

Often, when a food is recalled, people are told to throw the item away. If you’ve already cooked the food, throw that meal away to avoid harm.

In some cases, manufacturers may offer a refund to customers who purchased recalled food. You may be able to return it directly to the supermarket where you bought it.

Staying informed about food recalls can help you keep your family safe.

“If someone in your home has a food allergy, stay up-to-date on food recalls,” says Dr. Kopolovich. “Checking food recall websites regularly, or signing up for alerts, can be life-saving.”

Don’t Eat Food From a Dented or Swollen Can

“In addition to keeping watch of food recalls, be mindful of the condition of the containers your food is in,” adds Dr. Kopolovich. “If it’s canned, and you notice the can has been dented, punctured or is swollen, throw it away.” 

  • Swollen cans can indicate the food inside has spoiled
  • Deep dents can allow bacteria to enter through the seam

Food from a damaged can can lead to botulism – a deadly form of food poisoning that attacks the nerves and can lead to difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, or even death. 

“Once a seal has been broken, whether it’s bagged or canned, the food has been exposed to air and other pathogens which can lead to spoiling and bacterial growth,” concludes Dr. Kopolovich. 

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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