"I was hoping that with the new regulations we would have higher recovery rates, but that hasn't happened," Neal Hooker, co-author of the study and assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University said. "Manufacturers should have a better success rate, but they don't."
The new regulations, called the Pathogen Reduction (PR)/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, went into effect in 1998 at large plants - those with 500 or more employees; in 1999 at small plants (with 10 to 500 employees); and in 2000 at very small plants (with less than 10 employees). The programme was designed to encourage meat-plant managers to examine their operations, identify the "critical control points" where risks to the food might occur, and put safety precautions in place to prevent potential hazards.
Hooker said that the food supply is probably safer, but only because recalls are triggered more often and more quickly. The bigger, faster recalls are also due to better tests that have been developed in recent years.
Hooker and his team collected recall information from the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service and other sources. They compared information about the class of the recalls (from Class I, the most serious, to Class III), as well as the type of hazard - biological, physical or chemical. They also considered whether the product came from a large, small or very small plant.
They found that during this five-year period, 74 per cent of the recalls were classified as Class I, the most serious threat to human health. That didn't change after the new rules went into effect, Hooker said. Additionally, 57 per cent of the recalls resulted from some form of bacterial problem, such as Escheria coli or Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Physical hazards, in which a foreign object is found in a food product, accounted for only 16 per cent of the recalls.
"I was hoping we would see that the more hazardous cases - Class I recalls that are microbiological in nature - would be more quickly acted upon and have higher recovery rates," Hooker said. "But the answer was no."
The number of large plants recalling products has been relatively stable over the years, with fewer than 20 cases per year. But recalls from small plants has increased from 29 or less between 1994 and 1999 to 38 to 49 in 2000-2002. Likewise, recalls from very small plants jumped from seven or less before 1999 to 17 to 26 per year from 1999-2002.
Surprisingly, although the number and size of recalls have increased, Hooker said, their success rate in collecting product has not. On average, only about half of products that are recalled are actually recovered from the market, and few clear patterns emerged on whether the rate of recovery increased or decreased during the period studied.
"The smallest plants seem to do the best job," Hooker said. "I think it's because they have simpler distribution systems and know their customers better, and will accept more product than was actually included in a recall just for good customer relations."
The success of recalls, said Hooker, can get very complex. His research suggests that timing matters.
"If we ever have a major bioterrorism threat linked to the food supply, we should have the system in place that would create the sense of urgency to prevent problems. You want to be able to move very, very quickly, and that should be in the regulations."
Hooker conducted the study with graduate student Ratapol Teratanavat. Their results appear in the April issue of the journal Food Control.