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What to Know About Eating Recalled Food

Kevin Whipple

If you’ve ever eaten a packaged salad for dinner, only to see news that the very brand you’ve eaten has been recalled, you’re not alone. The federal government estimates we see about 48 million annual cases of foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. That means around 1 in 6 Americans get sick, in some way, from eating contaminated food each year.

From cheese dip to romaine lettuce to a recent 8.5-million-pound supply of frozen chicken, food recalls are common, and they can majorly affect your health. Food can become contaminated at several points along its journey to our table, including during production, transportation and storage in a grocery store. Dirty water, for example, can taint spinach in the fields, and unclean factory surfaces can infect meat products.

“Just about any food has the potential for some contamination in processing,” says Dr. Mary Campagnolo, a family physician and geriatrician in Bordentown, New Jersey. “Most of the time your body can fight off many of these infections. Our food system is relatively safe, but we do need to take care.” 

Common bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, like E. coli and listeria, can cause unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea. For anyone who might be immunocompromised, eating contaminated food can be especially dangerous. But periodic food recalls are inevitable, so it’s worth understanding the basics and know what to do if you think you’ve eaten a recalled product. 

What are some of the most common types of food recalls?

Salmonella or one of the E. coli bacteria strains are behind most American food recalls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that salmonella causes about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the US every year. Symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea and fever. E. coli bacteria can lead to diarrhea, urinary tract infections and even respiratory illness and pneumonia. An estimated 265,000 infections occur each year in the US.

Foods susceptible to contamination from these bacteria include various kinds of salad greens, meat (including ground meats and hot dogs), shellfish and prepared salads, like potato salad. “There’s always the potential, and some type of recall going on,” says Campagnolo. The CDC has an A-to-Z list of foodborne illnesses.

What’s the first thing I should do if I think a food recall applies to me?

If you know that a food item in your fridge has been recalled, that means it’s not safe to eat. Throw it out immediately or bring it back to the store where you bought it for a refund. If you’re not sure about the product, you can consult the federal government’s food recall site. Then, if you don’t have symptoms, “hope for the best,” says Dr. Joshua Septimus, associate professor of clinical medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital. Monitor your health for the next few days for any symptoms. With some foodborne illness, symptoms develop within 24 hours. For others, it can take longer. “The time frame really depends on the bug,” Septimus says. The FDA’s online guide details when symptoms from foodborne illnesses might occur and how long they could last.

What if I ate recalled food and I feel OK?

If you feel fine after eating a recalled food, great. Many factors play into whether you’ll develop symptoms, including your age and general state of health, and how much of the contaminated food you ate. If you haven’t experienced any adverse health effects, your immune system likely fought off the bacteria before symptoms could develop.

What should I do if I develop symptoms because of a recalled food?

First of all, don’t panic, says Campagnolo. Most of the time, our immune systems are strong enough to fight off bacteria and symptoms will be mild. Symptoms might include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, a mild fever, muscle aches or a headache, and could last anywhere from three to five days. You can treat aches and pains with Tylenol and drink liquids with electrolytes, like Pedialyte or sports drinks, to keep you hydrated. Imodium and Kaopectate are also okay. But Campagnolo also cautions against overtreatment: “Usually it’s better to let the body expel whatever’s going on and maintain your hydration level.” 

When do I need to seek medical attention because of a recalled food?

If mild symptoms last for more than two to three days, Campagnolo recommends making an appointment with your family doctor. More serious symptomssuch as bloody stool, severe vomiting, a fever over 102 degrees, and signs of dehydration (e.g., you can’t keep any fluids down, you’ve become disoriented, dizzy, foggy or lightheaded) — warrant a trip to the emergency room. Though rare, “there have been deaths associated with E. coli,” Campagnolo says. Deaths associated with salmonella have happened, but they’re rare too.

If I need medical attention, what might that look like?

If you go to the ER, doctors will likely run a basic panel to check your blood count, and they may give you IV fluids to counteract dehydration. They could also take a stool sample to look for bacteria or parasites; test results can take a few days. “Most of the time, by the time we identify what it is, the infection has cleared, but we can then tell what it was and help from a public health perspective,” Campagnolo says. For patients with persistent or severe gastrointestinal symptoms, Septimus often orders a PCR stool study, which is a newer, faster and more expensive stool test that looks for several dozen pathogens. Parasites, for one, can cause longer-lasting issues, sometimes living in the intestines for years.

Why are some people more vulnerable to complications from recalled foods?

People with weaker immune systems, including the elderly, young children, pregnant people and those with chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart failure, might not be able to fight off foodborne illnesses without help. For example, some people with HIV require antibiotics to clear up certain food-related illnesses that other people could beat without any medication, says Septimus. And immune system changes in pregnant people put them at increased risk of foodborne illnesses. In general, members of high-risk groups should avoid (or be very careful eating) certain risky foods, including raw milk and unpasteurized cider. 

Is there anything I can do to protect myself from contaminated foods?

Keep your immune system healthy. Eat a balanced diet with six to eight servings of vegetables and fruits per day, and stay well hydrated, says Campagnolo. Septimus says to be smart about where you shop for groceries. If you’re at a store you’re not familiar with and it doesn’t look clean, your best bet is to leave. Buy your fruit and vegetables directly from farmers if possible. That offers another layer of protection since you have a better sense of where your food is coming from, says Septimus. Meat can also be sourced nearby at local farms. Then, make sure to wash all produce properly, and to store any perishables in the fridge. “Despite all of the outbreaks, we should feel pretty good about our food supply,” Septimus says. “But the closer we can be to our food, the better.”

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