When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, the nation's food supply wasn't spared from the fallout. Restaurants closed, manufacturers raced to implement new protective measures and grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves stocked.
A shift also occurred in the food safety system, the safeguard between American consumers and what they eat.
At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, agency data shows that regulators reported only about a quarter as many recalls in 2020 as it did the previous year, and in 2021 the agency remains well behind its pre-pandemic pace.
At the Food and Drug Administration, the other government agency that issues food recalls, there was a more modest decrease in the number of recalls issued last year compared with 2019, continuing a downward trend over the past several years.
Officials and food safety experts say it's unclear what this all means for consumers. A drop in the number of recalls could signal a system growing safer, but some fear it could mean pandemic disruptions have allowed potential risks to slip through the cracks. Experts have been encouraged by the fact that there has been no discernible spike in the number of cases of foodborne illnesses, and they say that the number of recalls is likely shifting because of COVID-19's far-reaching effects on the economy.
"It's like I tell my graduate students: If you're doing an experiment, you need to change one variable at a time," said Don Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University. "Here, we've changed a whole lot of variables at once."
How COVID-19 changed the food safety system
In the early days of the pandemic, lockdowns and food shortages reshaped the way Americans ate. Restaurants shuttered before slowly returning to limited service. People spent more money at grocery stores and cooked more meals at home.
The changes introduced a new set of challenges for the USDA, which is responsible for meat, poultry and egg products, and the FDA, which oversees basically all other foods. Seemingly overnight, the two agencies were suddenly part of a whole-of-government response to an unprecedented public health crisis that went far beyond food.
The FDA announced in March 2020 that it was temporarily suspending most foreign inspections of food and other products it regulates. The agency, which also monitors new drugs, was involved in responding to the pandemic and would later be responsible for examining the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
The USDA, which has inspectors physically present in certain meat and poultry manufacturing facilities, continued inspections as normal but said it was prioritizing inspections in certain areas based on local conditions and resources.
Recalls fell by 75% at the USDA, but less dramatically at the FDA
In 2020, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued 32 recalls, according to agency data. The year before, it had 126 recalls and, the year before that, 128. So far this year, the service has issued 47 recalls.
An FSIS spokesperson said in a statement that the decline is largely because of fewer incidents being reported to the agency. Both the USDA and the FDA conduct their own inspections but often rely on producers and consumers to flag issues with a given food product before the decision is made to pull it from shelves.
"The reason for this decrease in reported incidents requiring recall analyses was likely due to a number of factors including societal disruptions and consumer behavior during the pandemic," the spokesperson said. "If USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service identifies any meat or poultry products as adulterated or misbranded that are not under control of the firm and available for sale, then the agency requests that the firm recall the product."
At the FDA, the fluctuations appear to be far less drastic.
The agency, which lumps food and cosmetics recalls together, reported 495 in fiscal year 2020 and 427 in 2021. Both are down from the 526 recalls in fiscal year 2019 and the 585 recalls recorded the year before.
"The number of recalls in any given year can fluctuate for a variety of reasons; we have not determined a specific reason for the decrease," an FDA spokesperson said in a statement.
Ben Chapman, a professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State University, said the data does not make clear what's going on within the U.S. food safety system.
"I think it's too early to tell," he said. "I think we're trying to do analysis in the midst of a pandemic, and we don't really understand how things have changed."
The numbers don't paint a clear picture of food safety
Recalls occur for a variety of reasons, including the discovery of foodborne pathogens as well as mislabeling that fails to alert consumers to the presence of possible allergens, such as nuts.
But in the opening days of the pandemic, the nation's early detection system was knocked partially offline. Many meat processors, for example, closed down after scores of workers tested positive for the coronavirus, which could have created fewer opportunities for recalls at the USDA if food production was on hold.
Chapman noted that many of the FDA recalls that did occur were because of allergens, a spike that may be attributed to behavior changes caused by the pandemic.
For example, he said, restaurants that were closed may have no longer needed a 30-pound box of chicken breasts, so producers instead turned that into smaller packages to sell directly to consumers in grocery stores.
"That change of scrambling for more labels to print, scrambling to think about different packaging, could lead to confusion within the supply chain," he said.
The change in FDA recalls may also be due to the continued implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, experts said, which tightened safeguards for food production under the FDA's jurisdiction in an effort to prevent more foodborne illnesses rather than respond to them. Although the act was signed into law in 2011, some of its rules only took full effect in the last few years.
Fewer recalls do not mean more bad food
Even though recalls may be down, that doesn't necessarily mean more bad food is in circulation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks cases of foodborne illnesses, another metric that experts say indicates how well the food safety system is working.
Although the numbers tend to lag by several years, the CDC program that tracks about 15% of the U.S. population currently shows a decrease in 2020 of pathogens typically transmitted through food. Infections caused by the eight pathogens currently tracked by the CDC dropped by 29% between 2019 and 2020 in the study area.
But even that data comes with a pandemic caveat: People with non-COVID-19 illnesses steered clear of hospitals during upticks in infections last year, which could account for the dip in foodborne pathogen cases.