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What do Americans want from their food? The answers are in the Trader Joe’s recalls.

Leaving food safety to private enterprise has risks.

A Trader Joe’s logo on a shopping cart handle in orange and white.
Signage on a shopping cart at a Manhattan Trader Joe’s grocery store in New York in December 2021.
Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Keren Landman is a senior reporter covering public health, emerging infectious diseases, the health workforce, and health justice at Vox. Keren is trained as a physician, researcher, and epidemiologist and has served as a disease detective at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over the past week, Trader Joe’s has announced three separate product recalls — for cookies, broccoli-cheddar soup, and falafel — due to the possibility they were contaminated with insects or rocks.

It’s “really very problematic” for the company, said Melvin Kramer, a food safety expert and president of the EHA environmental and public health consulting group. It’s also a concerning reminder for consumers about the fallibility of mechanisms meant to ensure our food supply doesn’t cause disease (or in this case, tooth breakages and what Kramer calls “the yuck factor”).

It appears Trader Joe’s issued the recalls voluntarily, as most companies do in the case of a contaminated food product: The US government’s oversight system leaves a lot of food safety assurance in the hands of private companies. Companies are incentivized to get ahead of food safety concerns rather than wait for the government to shut them down in order to maintain consumer confidence and profitability. But the more globalized our food system becomes, the harder it gets to ensure its safety.

It’s not clear why all of these recalls happened so close together, and to what extent globalization and the relative lack of federal food oversight played in the goods’ contamination. But when there is a recall, one of those issues is often the culprit.

“You could say it’s bad luck,” Kramer said. In a statement to Vox, Trader Joe’s said the cluster of recalls was “a coincidence.” But another possibility, said Kramer, is that the same features that make Trader Joe’s products so appealing to so many people — essentially, its blend of global and local foods made by small-batch producers — raise its risk of running into more safety problems compared with grocery stores that only source food from large-scale producers.

A US food retailer with more than 500 stores nationwide, Trader Joe’s has earned cult status among many Americans for selling taste-bud-thrilling, local specialty foods on a massive scale — and for telling compelling stories about its brands in unusually shrewd, zeitgeisty ways. (How many grocery stores have a branded podcast that’s actually good?)

The company generally issues product recalls about once or twice a month — so three in a week is a lot.

Different types of US food get different levels of scrutiny

Two government agencies are responsible for overseeing food safety in the US. And while one has fairly close oversight over products within its jurisdiction, the other isn’t required to be quite so meticulous. That creates the opportunity for problems.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), oversees meat and egg products, and conducts continuous inspections of plants where these products are made. (That means inspections are supposed to take place daily; it’s a scandal when a meat or egg plant goes two weeks without an FSIS visit.)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees everything else, which translates to the vast majority of the US food supply, nearly 80 percent of all the products Americans consume. However, the FDA only inspects the manufacturers it supervises once every three to five years.

That means the FDA simply doesn’t have the power to catch problems with most of the food it oversees before it hits grocery store shelves. As a consequence, problems with much of our food supply only get caught when a manufacturer or a consumer notices it.

This also means that the agencies have different mechanisms for keeping unsafe products off of consumers’ plates. Although the FSIS can keep meat or eggs from getting to stores if it detects a problem, the FDA largely relies on recalls to reduce people’s exposure to an unsafe food product.

Waiting for a problem to occur in order to intervene on a food safety issue is a pretty passive approach to something with potentially high stakes for consumers’ health. When a consumer product causes a health problem, it can destroy the public’s trust in food producers — and that can in turn have a huge impact on a company’s profits. So food distributors are incentivized to take a more active approach to food safety than what’s required by the FDA.

For that reason, many supermarkets and other food retailers hire independent companies to verify the safety practices of their suppliers. These companies, often called third-party auditors, check to ensure the suppliers adhere to certain global food safety standards. However, food retailers can (and often do) also require that the suppliers adhere to other sets of standards that set a higher bar for food safety.

The key here is that to some degree, it’s up to the food retailer — in this case, Trader Joe’s — to set the standards they require their food suppliers to meet.

Embracing artisanal and nonseasonal foods increases food safety risks — which some people are happy to take

As any lover of salty-crunchy foods within snacking distance of a Trader Joe’s will tell you, the retailer does some things differently from other large grocery chains.

The company carries a range of products from “a lot of smaller, more local companies that may not have some of the sophistication that some of the larger companies do,” said Kramer.

After all, food retailers like Trader Joe’s have some leeway in determining which standards their suppliers are required to adhere to. It’s possible the company’s vendor certification process is not as stringent as other grocers’ are, said Kramer — a risk the company balances with being able to offer its shoppers more unique, artisanal food experiences.

In response, a Trader Joe’s representative wrote in an email that the company buys “only products that are produced in FDA or USDA licensed and approved commercial manufacturing facilities that possess a variety of food safety certifications,” including two widely accepted food quality assurance systems.

“A lot of their clients like these experiences. And unfortunately, this goes with it,” Kramer said, referring to the recalls.

Food safety is vastly improved now compared with 20 or 30 years ago, said Kramer. However, our collective appetite for unusual and often out-of-season foods translates to persistent food safety risks.

Consider the raspberry: Although these fruits were for many years broadly unavailable in the US in wintertime, the demand for year-round raspberries created a market for international imports. As a consequence of shipping the fruit to the US from abroad, “We had basically the introduction of [the gastrointestinal parasite] Cyclospora into our country,” said Kramer.

It’s not that food production is necessarily less safe outside the US than within its borders; Kramer has seen good and bad practices all over the world, including in the US. But the reality is that more complexity in our food systems means more risk.

“That’s what comes with a global economy,” said Kramer: We are a global community of food — and “we are very demanding people.”

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