Physical contamination in food can be a real threat to eaters. Recalls for foreign contaminate can happen for everything from ground beef to cookie dough mix. Contamination can accidentally enter the food supply during manufacturing or when it is being prepared at restaurants and at home. The consequences if eaten can be minor in the case of contaminants such as hair or insects. Allergic reactions can occur if an ingredient in the food was not listed on the packaging. Major consequences such as choking and possibly life threatening laceration injuries to the mouth, gums, or digestive system can occur if there are hard objects like glass, plastic, or metal.
A recent cluster of cases tracked by the CDC in 2012 highlights the dangers to consumers. Six people in Providence, RI received severe injuries ranging from puncture of the soft tissues of the neck, causing severe pain on swallowing, to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract requiring emergent surgery from ingesting wire grill-cleaning brush bristles.
So how does physical contaminants get into food?
Physical contamination can first get into food during processing. The USDA has identified 2 phases of processing, fabrication or rework, that have the highest risk of physical contamination. During fabrication, Metal, bone, rubber, plastic, wood from the line could accidentally be included. If further breakdown and rework of the products is needed for items like sausage and ground beef, metal and other physical contamination from grinder, mixer, chub clips, etc. can accidentally be included in the finished product.
Once it gets to the restaurants and homes to be prepared, there is still a lot more room for error. Both natural and man-made contaminants can be included. Foreign bodies from the prep area like: metal shavings from cans, staples from cartons, glass from broken light bulbs, blades from plastic or rubber scrapers, fingernails, hair bandages, dirt, and bones can accidentally be dropped in and served.
What steps are being used to safeguard from physical contamination?
Globally, HACCP is an internationally recognized system for reducing the risk of safety hazards in food and is widely used. It is a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material to consumption of the finished product. In the United States, The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in 2011 and it enables FDA to better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system.
Manufacturers use 3 primary means of physical contamination detection on a production line:
- Magnetic separators (to find and remove fine, high-purity metal contaminants during food processing)
- Metal detectors (to identify metallic foreign bodies in food during the processing stage)
- X-ray machines (to see metal and nonmetal debris like glass, plastic and stones)
For restaurants and grocery stores, there are strict standards to ensure no foreign contaminants get into food sold at retail. Health department codes mandate the use of protection like hairnets, clean hygiene, and proper facilities modifications to ensure that foreign objects don’t gets into the food.
How to stay safe when eating out at a restaurant?
The best recommendation to stay safe is to stay vigilant and aware of the restaurant’s appearance. If the hygiene of the employees and the restaurant’s appearance doesn't seem well kept, that could point to bigger problems in other areas that customers don’t go. The biggest clue can be in the bathroom. If the toilets and restrooms are dirty and in disrepair, the back of the restaurant may bes probably the same.
What you should do if you find physical contamination in packaged food?
- Do not open the container. Taking the foreign body out could damage the evidence.
- Take pictures as evidence, preferably in such a way that you can see the object.
- Keep the container in the freezer, so you can preserve it. Then, find your receipt so you can prove when and where you bought the food.
- Report it, this is very important and may prevent others from being harmed.
To read the current and past recalls, click here
To report a case, fill out the form on this website
Recent Interesting Reports
“I had severe abdominal pain, cramping, following vomiting, and more abdominal and cramping. Sweats and slight fever. Couldn’t sleep all night It was within an hour that I got sick. I’m still sick, recovering today, with abdominal pain. ”
“I had it delivered on 5/7/2020 around 5pm. I ate half an order of Grilled Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo. I left the house at 5:30 and started to get a strong headache not long after eating which is real rare for me. In the store I started feeling nauseous and became... clammy and sweating. I told the cashier I wasn't feeling well all of a sudden and to call 911 if I fainted. On the drive home my symptoms increased causing me to want to close my eyes from the headache but I was driving so that was it's own battle. When I parked my car in the driveway I became extremely nauseous and once inside vomited heavily twice, losing my entire dinner. Keep in mind I hadn't had anything else to eat today so I know it didn't come from something else. Fearing Covid-19, I took my temperature but didn't have a fever, breathing problems or any other symptoms. The sweating increased a lot and after vomiting. It also forced me to poop twice (no diarrhea though). I vomited two more times which was all water and bile and by that time my stomach was empty. I started to feel better after that, lied down with a comforter because of the chills and slept until 10:30pm waking up feeling better. ”
“Pork street tacos Both my husband and I had stomach pain aprpox 1 hour after eating. He had a chicken chimichanga and only stomach pain. I had pork street tacos and almost exactly 1hour later had explosive mucus diarrhea x 3, sharp stabbing stomach pain that lasted through early this... morning and is slowly waning today. We both strangely reported feeling hungry all night and it keeping us up. ”
“Bought the frozen red bag chicken in May 22, 2020 and cooked for dinner. Ate 1 piece and it was good but then. Bit into the 2nd piece and very strange texture. I was vomiting within 30 minutes with diarrhea. It’s now the next day and I’m still nauseous. ”