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A recent increase in the number of recalls involving foods contaminated with objects such as wood, plastic and metal has been noted by industry experts, who say they can't explain the trend.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issues recalls related to poultry, beef and pork products, there were 23 recalls last year because of foreign contaminants, totaling more than 793 tons of recalled food. By comparison, there were six such recalls issued in 2014 and one in 2005.

A recall can be triggered by allergens, pathogens or extraneous materials missed by inspectors during processing. Tony Corbo, a senior food lobbyist with Food and Water Watch, said he has seen the number of recalls attributed to poor inspections climb in volume since 2018.

"I've been focusing on the extraneous-materials issue because this is something that is somehow bypassing the inspection process," Corbo said. "It could be because there's a shortage of employees and they're not catching it."

A rise in recalls for contaminated meat in the past two years could also be a side effect of increased automation in plants, he said.

Tens of thousands of pounds of food has already been recalled this year because it was contaminated, according to USDA reports. There have been nine recalls related to foreign-matter contamination issued in the past three months. Five of them were in March.

On Tuesday, a Tyson Foods subsidiary that processes food for school meals recalled more than 20,000 pounds of frozen beef patties that could carry traces of soft, purple plastic. The USDA issued the recall two weeks after issuing a separate one for Tyson chicken strips processed in Rogers that had bits of metal in them. In an email, a Tyson spokesman said it was an isolated incident.

At the time of both recalls, the USDA said it had heard no reports of injury or illness caused by the contaminated products.

In response to rising consumer complaints, the USDA last month issued new corporate guidelines designed to ensure that companies notify the government within 24 hours if contaminated products are in the marketplace. That could explain why there have been so many recalls lately, said John Marcy, a poultry science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Despite the rising number of recalls, Marcy said, "I really don't think there's more than there used to be. It's just the level of scrutiny" that has risen.

"Hopefully [the number of recalls] will go down," he said. "But like most things, we won't ever get to zero."

Food producers have precautionary measures in place, including metal detectors and special dyes to identify plastics. But pieces, which are sometimes half a millimeter in size and "are certainly not harmful if you don't take a tooth out," won't be picked up by these methods, Marcy said.

"The main thing that they are trying to do is make sure it's not out of control," he said.

But even with stricter guidelines, contaminants manage to slip through the cracks.

Corbo said there was an incident recently in which an inspector discovered a consumer complaint but didn't report it to the government within 24 hours.

"Why are they not immediately reporting that?" Corbo said.

Business on 04/04/2019

Print Headline: Objects in meat lead rise in recalls

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