WASHINGTON – Bits of metal, hard plastic, rubber and even glass are increasingly getting mixed and baked into processed meat products reaching consumers, triggering a record number of safety recalls, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.
So far this year, the Agriculture Department has announced 34 recalls involving 17 million pounds of meat products after stray materials were found in them.
That’s a sharp increase from a decade ago, in 2009, when there were five such recalls involving about 1 million pounds of processed meat.
Metal parts are breaking off machines that mix, chop and puree ingredients. Plant workers’ rubber gloves are falling into the meat mixes. And bits of plastic and glass from meat packaging and ingredient containers are getting ground into the food.
The makers of some of the most beloved and recognizable ready-made food staples have issued the recalls, including Tyson Foods chicken tenders, Jimmy Dean sausages and Spam.
The stray items, which the USDA calls “foreign objects,” typically are found after a consumer bites into a meat product, records show, sometimes chipping teeth in the process. The objects can cause choking and can injure the intestinal tract.
“There is this initial shock when you find something that clearly does not belong, such as a screw or shrapnel or packing material,” said Robert Rausch, a New York food safety lawyer. “It’s shock; it’s disgust. The concern always is whether there were other pieces that you swallowed. It’s like the old joke: What is worse than finding a worm in your apple? It’s finding a half a worm.”
A number of changes are causing the recalls to rise, according to USDA and industry experts.
Manufacturers are revving up processing line speeds to increase production, sometimes using old equipment that breaks down under the added strain. Consumers are taking their complaints public, naming the companies on social media, often including photos of the contaminated food. And USDA reporting requirements for the contamination, in response to a congressional mandate, became more stringent in 2012.
The USDA acknowledges that consumer complaints about the contamination are on the rise. It issued guidelines in March to food manufacturers to get them to respond more quickly to reported problems, saying companies sometimes issued recalls only after “multiple customer complaints.”
Two months after the guidelines were issued, Tyson Foods announced what is said to be the largest U.S. processed meat recall ever for foreign matter contamination – metal shavings may have ended up in as much as 12 million pounds of chicken strips.
The recall was expanded once – adding nearly 11.8 million pounds of chicken strips to the original recall of 69,093 pounds – and involved six consumer complaints, three with “oral injuries,” records show.
Details in USDA recall notices are sparse. Tyson Foods declined to respond to requests by The Washington Post for more specific information regarding victim injuries. It also declined to explain how the food became contaminated or how the problem was resolved.
In a prepared statement, company spokesman Worth Sparkman said: “Instances of foreign material in our products are rare but if they happen, we move quickly to notify those affected and take corrective action.”
The Post examined more than 150 USDA recall notices for foreign object contamination from 2009 to this year. For each recall, The Post recorded the manufacturer’s name, type of food, pounds of recalled product, type of foreign material and the manner in which the contamination was discovered.
The analysis showed the spike in recalls began in 2016. Pieces of plastic accounted for nearly half of the recalls for foreign objects and metal for nearly 25 percent. The rest of the recalled food was contaminated with either rubber, glass, cardboard or wood.
Processed meat products range from raw, marinated meat – considered semi-processed – to cooked products that are ready-to-serve after heating. Most frequently recalled were sausages and breaded chicken products. Deli meats, beef stews, meat-filled burritos, hamburger patties and chicken pizza were also recalled.
Although many of the recalls involved millions of pounds of processed food, not all of it was necessarily contaminated. Companies stamp processing dates and locations on product packaging so when contamination is found, products produced at the same plant during the same time frame can be pulled for safety.
The USDA does not have the power to order a recall; it can only recommend one based on what it knows about contamination of a product.
The industry is chafing at some of the 2012 federal reporting requirements. The regulation requires that companies provide more details to the USDA when they find contamination and that they do so faster.
The agency also requires notification when contamination doesn’t reach consumers but is discovered midstream, such as when beef is mixed into stew in a processing plant or honey-glazed ham is sliced at a deli counter.
Texas-based Eddy Packing issued a recall last year for 49,558 pounds of smoked sausage after a restaurant told the company that “pieces of white, hard plastic were found embedded in the sausage while slicing,” a recall notice said.
The problem was resolved client-to-client without involvement of the restaurant’s customers, records show. The incident still had to be reported to the USDA.
Mark Dopp, a vice president of the North American Meat Institute, a trade association, does not think the requirement is needed. “These companies have very sophisticated tracking systems that allow them to quickly find and destroy” the contaminated food, he said. Eddy Packing did not respond to requests for comment.
Meat industry officials say the new requirement to report contamination midstream, as Eddy Packing did, probably accounts for most of the recall increases for foreign matter contamination.
The Post analysis of USDA records shows that the reporting requirement is a contributing factor, accounting for about 20 percent of the recalls in recent years.
Some food manufacturing and marketing experts have a different explanation for the increase. They say the growing problem can largely be attributed to running old equipment at increasing speeds to meet growing consumer demands for processed meat.
“A lot of production lines out in use today were built several decades ago,” said Robert Rogers, senior food safety adviser at Mettler Toledo, which produces X-ray machines and metal detectors to locate foreign objects in food. “The equipment could have been designed to run at 10 feet per minute and now they are running it at 40 feet per minute.”
Rogers and several food safety experts said that poor maintenance of the machines and a lack of surveillance at critical points along the processing line also play a role.
Pilgrim’s Pride, owned by food processor JBS USA, said equipment failure caused plastic contamination in 2016 that led the company to recall more than 5 million pounds of chicken nuggets, patties and strips. In a statement to The Post, the company said the recall prompted it to “intensify equipment inspection, and foreign material detection.”
Three USDA inspectors, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, also said that faster line speeds, antiquated equipment and poor maintenance are playing the largest role in the increase.
The inspectors, along with food safety experts, say they should spend more time at processing facilities. Unlike USDA inspectors at slaughterhouses, where federal workers must be present at all times during operation, inspectors at processing plants may spend as little as one to two hours at a plant before jumping to the next one.
This means inspectors have time to review the plant’s written procedures for preventing contamination but little else. “If all they are doing is checking the company’s own paperwork, they aren’t inspecting, they are doing an audit,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist with the nonprofit Food and Water Watch.
The National Chicken Council – whose members produced one-third of the recalled products – said manufacturers are upgrading their equipment to models less prone to breaking, flaking and crumbling. They are also using X-ray machines, metal detectors and other technology at various points along the processing lines – not just at the end.
Ready to serve
Eating habits might be a factor in the increase. The rise in recalls coincides with the growth in consumer demand for ready-to-serve and ready-to-cook meals, according to annual surveys conducted jointly by the Food Marketing and the North American Meat institutes.
In 2016, 37 percent of consumers said they sometimes or frequently purchased processed meat products, compared to 62 percent this year, according to the surveys.
Metal detectors and X-ray machines, which are commonly used in processing plants, catch much of the contamination before it reaches consumers, but the technology has its limitations. Since meat contains iron and niacin, metal detectors must allow for some level of metal content, which means screws and metal shavings from malfunctioning equipment can slip through.
“Bone, muscle and other tissues contain iron, niacin and other metals,” said Dopp, with the Meat Institute. “You can’t set the machines to a highly sensitive level, or they will go off even when there is no contamination.”
The USDA and the industry both said consumers – who still trigger about 80 percent of the recalls – have multiple channels they can use to register concerns and complaints.
Most companies and the USDA have toll-free numbers listed on food packaging. Manufacturers and the USDA also have electronic forms on their websites. The USDA says consumers who wish to report a food safety concern may call its hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or report the complaint online at foodcomplaint.fsis.usda.gov/eCCF.
Many consumers take their complaints straight to social media.
That’s what New Jersey resident Nick Norelli did last year after his then-16-year-old told him she nearly swallowed a piece of metal the size of a popcorn kernel that she found inside her chicken nugget.
“@TysonBrand My daughter was eating some of your Tyson Fun Nuggets the other night and bit into a piece of metal,” Norelli wrote in a Jan. 5, 2018, tweet that included a picture of the nuggets and metal. “Thankfully she didn’t choke or break a tooth but this is unacceptable!”
Norelli shared with The Post direct messages that he and a Tyson Foods representative exchanged over Twitter in which Norelli was asked by the company to send the piece of metal and the product packaging so it could investigate.
Not all complaints result in a recall. Sparkman, the Tyson Foods spokesman, said the company “determined the object did not match anything used in our processing plant. Also, there were no similar concerns raised by other consumers.”
For his trouble, Norelli was sent coupons for two free packages of chicken products. “I used them,” he said. “I thought it was some sort of freak thing – I guess it’s not.”