The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in U.S. History

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For decades the United States has had some of the most stringent food production guidelines in the world, but it wasn’t always so. In order for the public to gain the protection of laws established by agencies such as the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and FDA, thousands of people had to encounter food-borne illnesses, disease, and even death before lawmakers took action. Fast forward to today, and the U.S. still has some of the highest food safety standards in the world, but there have been an alarming number of food recalls in recent years.

One of the latest recalls from General Mills concerning flour tainted with E. Coli has the masses questioning just how safe our food supply really is. This isn’t the first time a massive recall has happened — everything from produce and grains to meat and beverages have been recalled for safety reasons.

Here are the ten biggest food recalls in U.S. history.

10. Wright County/Hillandale Farms Egg Recall

This recall in 2010 involved more than half a billion eggs and infected 1,900 people — fortunately, no one died. The problem was linked to a salmonella plant in Iowa, and once the story broke the public began to wonder about the conditions inside of factory farms. Special reports and documentaries, as well as outraged, followed.

9. Menu Foods Pet Food

This 2007 recall brought the public’s attention to the fact that many of the foods we all thought were being produced in the US, including pet food, are actually made overseas where production standards and oversight are subpar. Menu Foods opted to use a Chinese supplier and as a result batches of their dog food ended up tainted with melamine, which leads to kidney failure when ingested. 60 million bags and cans of pet food was recalled after 14 cats and dogs died. The company’s financial losses were approximately $45 million.

8. ConAgra Beef

Giant food corporation ConAgra had to recall over 19 million pounds of beef in 2002 after 19 people got sick after eating the company’s ground beef that was reportedly made from contaminated beef trim. The recall affected a slew of retailers, and the E.coli outbreak from the beef was eventually traced back to ConAgra’s meat processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.

7. Topps Meats Frozen Ground Beef Patties

Another incident wherein ground beef was contaminated with E. coli happened in 2007. Thirty people across eight states became seriously ill after eating frozen ground beef patties made by Topps Meats — 21.7 million pounds of patties, equivalent to an entire year’s worth of processed meat, had to be recalled. The financial impact was so severe that Topps Meats permanently shut down just six days after the recall was issued. Before the business closed, it had been the US’s largest producer of frozen burger patties.

6. Peanut Corporation of America

While most food recalls are the result of unfortunate mistakes, sometimes companies knowingly distribute products that are contaminated. From 2007 to 2008, the Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanut products across the US and Canada that they knew was contaminated with a viral strain of salmonella. Because the products were sent to unknowing companies who then produced peanut butter and peanut meal, over 3,200 different products had to be pulled from store shelves. The Peanut Corporation of America filed for bankruptcy to protect itself financially in 2009, but eight people died as a result of their malfeasance. At a congressional hearing, a company executive claimed that the Peanut Corporation of America would lose an estimated $1 billion as a result of the recall.

5. Hudson Beef

When this recall happened in 1997, it was the largest one in history at the time. Over 25 million pounds of ground beef processed by Hudson Beef was recalled due to being contaminated with E. coli after more than 16 people got sick from eating it. Some of the contaminated meat made its way to Burger King, which had a contract with the company to provide their meat products. Burger King ended the contract as a result of the recall, and Hudson Beef was also sold later due to the resulting financial strain.

4. Pilgrim’s Pride Frozen Turkey and Chicken

The second largest chicken processing company in the world, Pilgrim’s Pride, issued a recall of over 27 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken in 2002. The culprit was an outbreak of listeria, which can be deadly to children, pregnant women, elders, and those with compromised immune systems. The processing plant in Franconia, Pennsylvania was permanently shuttered by Pilgrim’s Pride after the contamination caused 46 people to become ill, a total of three stillbirths and miscarriages, and seven deaths. The company’s losses over the years related to the recall were about $100 million.

3. Cargill Ground Turkey

Following the death of one person and at least 75 others becoming ill after eating ground turkey that was contaminated with salmonella, Cargill recalled 35 million pounds of turkey in 2011. Though Cargill temporarily shut down the plant where the contamination originated for a week, not even a month later the same salmonella contamination was found there again. Operations kept going the second time, and the second recall was much smaller than the first one.

2. Sara Lee Deli Products and Hot Dogs

In one of the biggest deli products recalls in history, Sara Lee had to take 35 million pounds of products off the shelf in 1998 after it was found that a listeria outbreak had occurred. To give you an idea of how major that is, 35 million pounds of deli products and hot dogs is equivalent to almost 16,000 tons of food. Because of the contamination, well over 100 people were sickened and 21 died. Sara Lee paid over $100 million as a result of the recall, but the company wasn’t forced to close.

1. Westland/ Hallmark Beef

Strangely enough, the largest food recall ever didn’t happen after anyone got sick. In fact, no one complained about any illnesses, but Westland/Hallmark Beef was still forced by the USDA to recall 143 million pounds of beef in 2008, which equaled two years worth of processing and production. The USDA was pressured to act after the Humane Society released an undercover video revealing horrid practices at one of the company’s meat processing plants. Westland/Hallmark blatantly failed to pull sick cows from the processing line and they didn’t tell inspectors about the cows that were sick. In all, the company agreed to a nearly $500 million settlement, which went to government agencies and animal welfare groups.


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