Yes, there really are more rubber chunks and plastic pieces turning up in meat

USDA issues guidance for meat processors to handle food contaminated with rubber, metal, plastic, or other adulterants. Credit: Joe Potato / iStock, March 2019

Joe Potato / iStock

USDA issues guidance for meat processors to handle food contaminated with rubber, metal, plastic, or other adulterants. Credit: Joe Potato / iStock, March 2019

Joe Potato / iStock

Prompted by an uptick in recalls, a new USDA guidebook counsels food companies on how to respond when inedible bits and pieces end up in their products.

 Update March 14, 2019 at 5:00 PM EST: This article was updated to include subsequent comment from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service

This week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a
draft handbook to help meat companies deal with an unappetizing situation: incidents when chunks of rubber, wooden chips, and other inedible objects show up in their food.

The best practices guideline, as the handbook is called, is intended to help the meat and poultry industries, which fall under USDA jurisdiction, respond to complaints about adulterated or misbranded products.

Typically, recalls are prompted by undeclared allergens, or dangerous pathogens like listeria, E. coli, or salmonella. The presence of foreign material is a persistent, but rarer cause. Typically, the contaminant is industrial, the kind of thing that could have slipped off the assembly line and into your processed food—metal shavings, glass fragments, or hard plastic. Sometimes, it’s more gruesome—think bone fragments.

In a press release, the USDA’s Food Service and Inspection Service (FSIS) said the guideline was prompted by an uptick in recalls. Between 2016 and 2018, possible contamination of foreign material was responsible for over 18 percent of recalls managed by USDA, according to an analysis of agency data that food safety compliance company Stericycle provided to The New Food Economy. In the two years prior, 2014 and 2015, that number was only around 7 percent.

Put another way: There were only 6 foreign matter recalls in 2014, and 12 in 2015. Every year since has seen more than 20, with 25 in 2017.

That sizable increase doesn’t even include this year’s incidents. In January alone, Perdue recalled more than 68,000 pounds of chicken nuggets after three consumers complained of having found wood in them. Two weeks later, Tyson recalled over 36,000 pounds of chicken nuggets that may have contained stray bits of rubber. Plants in Wisconsin and Ohio recalled nearly 50,000 pounds of pork for the same reason.

The increase may be, in part, due to renewed agency scrutiny. “In 2017, FSIS began taking additional steps to help establishments develop effective programs to address customer complaints involving foreign objects in products,” an FSIS spokesperson tells The New Food Economy, in an emailed statement, after this story was published. “The number of recalls involving adulterated products has increased because FSIS has put a new emphasis on ensuring that establishments report problems to FSIS within 24 hours.”

Nevertheless, the number of foreign matter recalls was already growing before FSIS intensified its focus on the issue. And the guidebook itself notes that a rise in the number of these recalls is its reason for being. “FSIS developed this document in response to an increase in the number of recalls of meat and poultry products adulterated with foreign materials,” it reads.

Oddly, contamination of foreign material does seem to be a problem specific to the meat and poultry industry. Between 2016 and 2018, foreign matter accounted for less than 9 percent of recalls overseen by the Food and Drug Administration—the federal agency that regulates more than 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, but not most meat products.

So, say you actually find rubber in your chicken nuggets. The best thing you can do is call a USDA hotline or file a complaint with the agency online. Companies like Tyson aren’t obligated to have their own customer complaint or food safety hotlines, though some products list phone numbers on the back of the box. The new guideline, released in draft form, recommends—but does not require—that meat companies use a number like that as the first step for customers to report contaminated food. It also suggests social media as another way to monitor complaints. And why not? Cable companies and airlines are already used to getting an earful on Twitter.

The guideline doesn’t exactly make it seem like correcting, or preventing, those errors is a serious priority.
But the guideline is primarily focused on what companies should be doing with that feedback—which could come in the form of a photo, video, or even a sample of the foreign material that someone almost ate—once they receive it. Throughout, it notes that confusion might arise when food companies work with independent plants that manufacture their food, a practice known as co-packing. As we’ve reported, it’s often these independent kitchens or plants that actually cook the products that get labeled with familiar brand names. The guideline recommends that food companies and co-packers find a method of tracking those complaints, presumably so they don’t get lost.

FSIS says that it doesn’t require companies to actually maintain a plan for addressing complaints, noting only that it’s “best practice” to document how “corrective actions” get handled, in order to “support regulatory compliance” when an adulterated product is found to be in the stream of commerce.

Food companies are quick to say it’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid hurting customers. But the guideline doesn’t exactly make it seem like correcting, or preventing, those errors is a serious priority, at least from a regulatory angle. The guideline, for example, suggests that establishments should be “proactive” in addressing foreign contamination—that it’s “best practice” to reinspect the plant’s faulty belts when a piece of plastic shows up in someone’s food, but not required. “Consider if this is really only an isolated incident,” it reads.

That’s consistent with USDA’s somewhat blasé attitude toward foreign matter in food. According to the press release, the agency has made presentations to industry, reminding companies that food products are considered adulterated—that is, they need to be recalled—even when foreign materials contaminants don’t pose a food safety hazard. Sounds strange, but pathogens like E. coli are considered true “food safety hazards”—a legal term of art with ramifications. A piece of plastic, however, is merely “unfit for human consumption.”

FSIS will take comments about the guidance until May 10.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.