The number, or at least the profile, of food recalls has increased over the last decade. Outbreaks such as "mad-cow disease" in the UK, US or Japan, or the more common salmonella and E-coli contamination have been behind some of the largest recalls or recent years.

A food recall for salmonella poisoning can be devastating for a company – a number of business have claimed bankruptcy as a result of a widespread recall. This has forced a number of food processors to increase the levels of quality control and hygiene at plants around the world.

National food standards agencies have also been given further-reaching powers to reduce the risk of a food poisoning outbreak.

So have we seen a decrease in the number of food recalls? Strangely, the answer is no, but detection techniques have improved. Food has also become more global, with imports rising from countries where quality control standards are less strict and certain food additives restricted in the Western world are still widely used.

Below, we list some of the biggest food recalls of the past decade that highlight a number of these growing concerns, despite food practices getting much better.


“The number, or at least the profile, of food recalls has increased over the last decade.”

Basic Foods

In the largest-ever food product recall in the US, the US FDA ordered 10,000 products to be withdrawn from circulation. It is believed a flavour enhancer – hydrolysed vegetable protein – manufactured by Las Vegas-based Basic Foods had become contaminated with salmonella. In the aftermath, the US Government accused Basic Foods of continuing to sell the product even after the contamination had been detected.


Peanut Corporation of America

This recall of 3,913 products became the largest to date in US history. Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) already had a chequered past with food safety before 2009 with consistent reprimands by the US FDA.

In this particular incident salmonella contamination, found at PCA’s plants in Georgia, Texas and Virginia left nine people dead and 691 sick. PCA filed for bankruptcy the day the US FDA announced the recall.


Maple Leaf Foods

A listeria contamination of cooked deli meat from Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods left 23 people dead and another 57 hospitalised in 2008. It also led to Canada giving much greater power to its Food Inspection Agency after it emerged there was only one federal inspector overseeing numerous plants in the area.

Maple Leaf initiated a voluntary recall before the contamination was traced to the company, but was forced to pay C$27m (US$25.5m) in damages. The recall also included several batches sent to fast-food giant McDonalds.

Westland / Hallmark Beef

In the largest ever beef recall in the US, more than 143 million pounds of Westland / Hallmark frozen beef was deemed unfit for human consumption by the USFDA. The recall was issued because the cattle had not been inspected before slaughter and video had been released showing employees at the California slaughter house abusing sick animals.

Undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the US revealed workers shoving crippled and sick animals with forklift trucks, kicking downer cows and force feeding water to others.

It was feared that the beef may have been shipped to as many as 150 school districts.

China Dairy Companies

The melamine scandal is one of the most infamous product recalls in history. It began when six infants died and a further 300,000 people were hospitalised after consuming contaminated milk-based products.

“National food standards agencies have been given greater powers to reduce the risk of a food poisoning outbreak.”

Melamine is generally used in the manufacture of a fire-retardant plastic but it is sometimes, like in this case, illegally added to food stuffs such as milk to improve their apparent protein content. It causes damage to the liver, and is therefore dangerous to young children.

In total, 21 dairy companies were scrutinised in the aftermath, and the dairy industry in China has struggled to regain a market share. Many global confectioners, including Cadbury’s, were also caught up in the recall, having purchased milk products from China.

Since then, six people have been charged and sentenced and the company has been penalised.

In 2010, a report from Peking University said that although most children recovered from the exposure, 12% still showed kidney abnormalities six months later. That said, the long-term effects of this event are still unknown.


Dole Spinach

Following the death of an 81-year-old woman in Nebraska, US, the FDA took the unprecedented step of telling all Americans to not eat any bagged spinach.

E-coli contamination was later linked to Dole Baby Spinach grown in California, but not until after five people died and a further 205 were hospitalised across 23 states.

The outbreak ended up costing the spinach industry $350m, and a large number of customers. By the end of 2007, industry figures were still down by 20%.

Today, there is still no guarantee that bacteria won’t end up on the plate. Smaller recalls of leafy vegetables have proven this. At the end of the day, the product is still raw, and comes with its own risk.


A leaking pipe at confectionary giant Cadbury’s Marlbrook plant in Leominster in the UK resulted in the recall of more than a million chocolate bars in 2006.

“Legislation designed to keep food safe can be the precursor to a food recall.”

Cadbury feared milk-chocolate crumb produced at the plant was contaminated with salmonella after the leak was discovered in January 2006, but the UK Food Standards Agency was not alerted to the potential problem until June. The recall is estimated to have cost Cadbury Schweppes £20m ($29m) with the company being fined a further £1m ($1.5m) after a legal case was brought against it by Birmingham City Council.


Premier Foods

Sometimes legislation designed to keep food safe can be the precursor to a food recall. In 2005 in the UK, Premier Foods was forced to withdraw 470 products from stores across Europe because they contained the carcinogenic industrial dye Sudan 1, which made chili powder red.

Regulation saw Sudan 1 outlawed for food use in the UK in 1995, and these products had hit the shelf before then. When the government discovered the products were still on the shelf, it ordered them to be removed, or returned from kitchen cupboards.

It was estimated that the recall from the UK alone cost the food industry £100m ($145m) with related products also having been shipped to India and Canada. The UK Government faced criticism about the length of time the products actually remained on the shelf following the Premier Foods recall.


US Beef

The US has one of the largest ranching industries in the world. Any effect to its cattle industry can therefore have a large impact on the country.

Following a case of mad cow disease in Washington state, countries across the world banned the import of US beef. At the time, the US FDA said it was believed that the meat from an infected cow could have had been sent along with 10,000lb of other beef to eight US-states and the territory of Guam. Japan, Mexico and South Korea, the US beef industry’s top three customers, stopped imports.

“As the leading beef exporter in the world, the US has had to work hard to regain consumer confidence.”

Japan removed the ban in 2005 before reinstating it in 2006 following the discovery a vertebral column in a shipment of veal. It later removed the ban again in spite of consumer fears. As the leading beef exporter in the world, with sales coming in at $3.5bn for 2003, the US has had to work hard to regain consumer confidence, and that of the nations it trades with. This meant the US had to put considerable effort into determining where the outbreak occurred and reassuring its food safety efforts were stringent enough to promise food products were free from danger.


Kyowa Perfumery & Chemical Company

Japan’s biggest recall occurred when the Kyowa Perfumery & Chemical Company made flavouring agents using substances – a practice banned in Japan. A combination of castor oil, acetaldehyde and propionaldehyde was used to create the flavouring, which ended up in a number of products, against the nation’s Food Sanitation Law.

Japan’s largest frozen food maker Nicherei had to recall 460,000 samples of its products, Oriental Land Company stopped selling a range of confectionary products it made and another 600 companies were said to have been affected.

A number of these companies demanded compensation from Kyowa for the cost of the recall and the affect it had had on their businesses.