Most consumers become aware of food recalls through news reports, social media postings or while shopping. When they learn of a recall they typically assume that the government – through the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Federal Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) – has mandated the recall but that is almost never the case. Either the food manufacturer, the USDA or FDA can deem a food product unsafe, contaminated or mislabeled but it’s the manufacturer who most always is the party to issue the recall and so in this sense nearly all recalls are voluntary.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and egg products while the FDA regulates all other foods. The FSIS serves under the direction of the USDA and conducts inspections of foods in the its domain.

The FSIS does not have statutory or regulatory authority to compel a meat or poultry establishment to initiate a recall while the FDA does have “mandatory recall authority”.  Although the FDA has this power it has never exercised it. Instead, both agency’s issue public health alerts and use their considerable influence to urge producers and manufacturers to issue the recalls on their own. That said, once a company does issue a recall the government determines the classification status to communicate the seriousness of the underlying problem to the public. There are three types of food product recalls:

Class I: This is the most serious of the recall levels. A recall will by characterized by FDA or FSIS as a “Class I Recall” whenever there is “reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.” Examples include a known presence of a foodborne pathogen such as Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods or the presence of a non-declared allergen.

Class II: This is the second most serious of the recall levels. A recall will by characterized by FDA or FSIS as a “Class II Recall” whenever there is only “a remote possibility of adverse health consequences from the use or consumption of the product,” and the condition that could be caused by the adulterated product is only “temporary or medically reversible.” One example might be a food product that has extremely small pieces of malleable plastic discovered in it.

Class III: This is the least serious of the recall levels. A recall will by characterized by FDA or FSIS as a “Class III Recall” whenever the use or consumption of the product at issue “will not cause adverse health consequences.” An example would be an improperly labeled food product in which the actual amount of water in the product was not properly declared.

Some helpful resources: