Corporate Risk, Issues & Crisis Strategic Advisory Services

March 1, 2021

What’s the story behind 2020’s fall in product recalls?


The year 2020 will be remembered for many things, but for those of us involved in food safety one of the things which stands out is the lower number of product recalls compared to 2019 – and this at a time of panic-buying and increased pressure on manufacturing and staffing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to our review of the FSA figures there was a 13 per cent fall in the number of recalls in 2020 compared with the previous year. The biggest reduction was in allergens, down from 108 in 2019 to 84 in 2020. There were also fewer recalls relating to foreign bodies, such as plastic, glass and metal contamination, and fewer relating to salmonella.

Interestingly it was a similar story in the US where a report* from Stericycle said: “the decline in the number of recalls was not surprising given the FDA’s ‘limited regulatory oversight activities over the last four months’ as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation.”

In usual times a fall in the number of product recalls would be a welcome statistic, however given the unprecedented situation of 2020, is there more to the story than first appears?

Perhaps consumers had other, potentially more serious matters to focus on, namely the pandemic and the outcome for themselves and their families, so didn’t complain about products when they might otherwise have done?

Or could it be that food manufacturers were so focused on keeping the supermarket shelves full during the panic-buying phase, as well as coping with COVID safety measures and staff shortages, that food safety issues were missed, or even worse, ignored?

Our experience managing two to three product recalls per month throughout 2020 shows that, aside from the well-documented ethylene oxide contamination of sesame in the final quarter, there were no discernible trends in root cause. Issues ranged from mislabelling of allergens to malicious contamination, microbiological problems to foreign bodies. None of which sheds any light on the reason for the fall in recalls.

Whatever the reasons, minimising recall situations is something everybody wants, be they manufacturers or consumers. Running regular, robust traceability exercises and recall simulations is key to concentrating minds on what a business would really do in the event of a recall, providing lessons for the development of future responses, and is arguably more important during times of stress.

The virtual training exercises we’ve been running over the last year have all proven extremely valuable, challenging teams to see if they can manage a product incident while working from home or maintaining social distancing. In fact, in many ways they’ve been much more representative of how companies would usually manage a recall situation − ask yourself when your entire recall team were last in the same place at the same time?

To find out how we can support your recall resilience, contact

*Stericycle Expert Solutions in its recently issued Recall Insights Report Edition 2, 2020.