All it took was a mistake by one or a few employees of a breading supplier to lead to the largest U.S. allergen recall by volume to date.
The error led to milk inadvertently ending up in huge quantities of bread crumbs, which were then used in the making of packaged foods and distributed. The result is now a recall of 3.7 million pounds of food products because of the presence of milk, a Top 8 allergen that is not declared on food labels.
One of the big companies involved says it acted “quickly to address the matter.” Conagra Brands Inc. was notified by the supplier on June 6 of the potential presence of the allergen and out of an “abundance of caution,” it voluntarily recalled 700,125 pounds of canned pasta and meatball products with pork, chicken and beef in tomato sauce. Meanwhile, Tyson Foods Inc. recalled a whopping 2.4 million pounds of frozen breaded chicken patties and fritters that were sold to U.S. schools and supermarkets.
Other companies including Gourmet Boutique, Pork King Sausage, Advance Pierre Foods, Packer Avenue Foods, Giant Eagle, Slade Gorton and Joseph Seviroli Foods have also pulled products in this massive and costly recall.
So far, there have been no reports of consumer reactions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat products.
According to Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, somewhere in the food chain, an employee or employees of the supplier didn’t follow the procedures – and that’s why the milk ended up in the bread crumbs, when it’s normally not an ingredient.
The breading supplier has not been named by the recalling companies or the USDA, and Taylor says the supplier has “great policies” in place. “But if someone disregards them, you’ve got problems. [The mistake] was regrettable and expensive.”
The USDA designated this as a “Class I” recall, meaning it is a “health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”
SAlthough a recall generally follows when a product with a Top 8 allergen not listed on labels is released, Taylor says “in this case, USDA is taking a very hard line.” The food scientist explains that “some of these products hardly have any detectable milk, but they are being recalled anyway because of the allergen.”
While some of the recalled packaged foods contained elevated levels of milk, Taylor says most were below 1 percent of the product, which means they would be below a threshold for reactivity for many dairy-allergic individuals.
He also says a lot of these products were made quite a while ago, in January or February, and he suspects many have already been eaten.
The USDA is advising consumers not to eat any of the recalled food products and to return them to the store where they were purchased.
The scale of the return of products that would be safe for those without a milk allergy leads to a common question: Where does all that food go?
It goes to waste, according to the USDA and to Taylor. “You can’t even give to a food bank,” he says.