The Butter Chicken in questionTrader Joe's announced yet another recall last week, at least the sixth this year, affecting dozens of stores. This time it's a frozen Trader Joe's brand Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice entree, 4,865 pounds of which are being recalled because they may be contaminated with Listeria, a bacteria food safety experts describe as "scary."
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The meals had already been distributed to Trader Joe's stores on the East Coast. Earlier recalls in 2012 were of Sunland peanut butter products stocked at Trader Joe's, Trader Joe's BBQ Chicken Salad, Trader Joe's Mild Salsa and Balela, the brand's deli and prepared foods involving onions, and Trader Joe's Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheatberry salad, according to the website US Food Safety, whose owner Susan Reef spoke with Yahoo! Shine.
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Shoppers, understandably, are paranoid that there's something wrong either at Trader Joe's or with our food supply in general.
And it turns out that they may be right to be concerned. Trader Joe's is on par with other large retailers like Wegmans and Whole Foods when it comes to number of recalls, food safety experts Yahoo! Shine spoke with agreed. Anyone selling lots of packaged food is at risk, Reef said, because "the more human hands that are on a food and the more machinery that have come in contact with a food, the more likely it is to be recalled. We see more manufactured product recalls than we do in the fruit and vegetable arena." Still, she pointed out that 18 people died from eating cantaloupe in 2011.
Overall recall numbers are hard to obtain, because food regulation in the U.S. involves two non-collaborating government agencies and a supply of imported food, but it's clear that there are many recalls a week, with a total of 3,640 recall events in 2011 and 2,781 in 2009, according to statistics provided by the FDA to Yahoo! Shine. Mike Rozembajgier, president of Stericycle Expert RECALL, a company that handles recalls for large corporations, told The MetroWest Daily News that the number has been higher than usual in 2012.
"It's hard to know if there are actually more recalls or if there's just a perception that there are more," said Sarah Klein, a senior staff attorney for the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "What we do know is that there are more recalls than we'd like to see, and there are some unusual pathogen/food combinations, and there are some recalls that are more troubling than others because of the nature of the food/pathogen pair."
The most recent Trader Joe's recall involves just such a pair, Klein explains. Listeria is the classic "deli-counter bacteria" which can cause mild flu-like symptom for the mother, but be deadly for the unborn child. When it's found in a frozen food, it means the longevity of the threat is indefinite, and that the product might long outlast the public awareness of the recall.
Trader Joe's representatives did not return calls for comment. A manager reached at a New York City store claimed that the brand is "really good about it" when recalls happen. "We posted notices around the store, at all the registers and in the frozen food aisle, and destroyed everything we have in stock," the manager, who asked not to be named, said. "We throw it in the trash, just to make sure it isn't donated. If you've bought any, you can bring it back and get a refund. We have a 100 percent returns policy anyway, if you buy something and aren't satisfied."
Unfortunately, one of the problems with Listeria, Klein says, is that it can survive indefinitely on metal and plastic surfaces. If the bacteria is on the outside of a package of contaminated food, and you had that food in your freezer, throwing it away or returning it won't help.
What can consumers do when any product, fresh or frozen, might be contaminated? One answer is demand more regulation. In fact, two years ago congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which would increase scrutiny on food suppliers regulated by the FDA. Advocates complain that the law has been held up ever since in the federal Office of Management and Budget, and that it will be much longer until consumers see the increased protections. But increased regulation wouldn't have made a difference in the case of the Butter Chicken. Meat and poultry is overseen by a different organization, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which already has more stringent regulations in place. And moreover, the Trader Joe's meal was made in Canada, which has its own set of rules.
In the end, Klein says, the problem is up to the retailers to solve. "They have the market power to say, 'If you want to sell to us, there are things you have to do to show us that food safety is top priority'," she says. She adds that there are some chains, like Costco, that have made food safety "a real and public priority," and we can all hope that more follow suit.
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The top food recalls of 2011
Peanut recalls: What you need to know
4 steps to lower your risk of getting sick from food