In the past few weeks, Trader Joe’s has issued a slew of recalls, including one for potential insects in Unexpected Cheddar soup (unexpected, indeed); one for potential metal in multigrain crackers; and two for potential rocks, in both the fully cooked falafel and the almond cookies. That’s a lot of non-food items in our food.
Although recalls are relatively common and often voluntary on the part of a retailer, as was the case in the Trader Joe’s recalls, the timing of these multiple instances and the variety of objects therein felt a bit like a windfall. Is finding rocks, bugs, and metal in our food just going to be a thing now? Are these contaminants everywhere? And how did they get there, anyway?
Rocks and bugs all sound pretty horrid, but they’re also part of our natural world, so it’s no surprise that they occasionally find their way into spaces where food is processed. In fact, rocks often start in the food and need to be removed. It’s not as though someone is adding rocks to a production line—the pebbles are getting missed when an item is being prepared.
In the case of the rocks in Trader Joe’s almond cookies, The Daily Meal explains that this could have something to do with how almonds are harvested. Mechanical equipment shakes the almond plant and then gathers the fallen almonds from the ground, so rocks, gravel, or other bits might get scooped up along with them. All it would take is an imprecise separation process for those rocks to make it all the way to the final product. (You can see rocks being removed here.)
As far as bugs go, it’s not clear what type of bugs were in the cheddar soup Trader Joe’s recalled, or how they got in there, but it seems bugs are relatively common in food production spaces, too. Steady temperatures, lights, and proximity to food all make food processing centers attractive places for bugs to gather. One expert went as far as to say in this Quality Assurance Magazine report that bugs would find the temperature near the doors of such a facility “delightful.”
Of course, there are methods that food processing facilities can, are supposed to, and do utilize to weed out rocks and keep bugs away. Two of those methods are machines and people.
I found myself a bit mesmerized by this video of a rock trap, which is supposed to catch rocks that may be hidden among food. Despite it being fun to watch, though, I can see how it isn’t a foolproof system (and I wished the video showed it processing real food, but I guess it wasn’t made for my enjoyment).
Speaking of foolproof systems: Humans are often the best defense against living pests like rodents and bugs.
“Your employees are the facility’s first line of defense against pests,” says online training platform Safety Skills. “Because they spend a significant amount of time in work areas, storage areas, break rooms, and other parts of your facility, they can easily be trained to spot signs of pests before the problem escalates to a full infestation.”
It goes on to describe what those humans should look out for, a list that includes things like loose fur, droppings, animal tracks, and bite marks. Are you hungry yet?
Because both machines and humans are flawed in their own ways, food facilities are required to register with the FDA and follow “Current Good Manufacturing Processes,” or CGMPs. Still, sometimes, those systems do fail.
“FDA clearly states that it is economically impractical to grow, harvest and process certain products that are free from such defects,” explains Food Safety Magazine. “Unfortunately, problems with foreign materials crop up regularly... foreign materials do end up in foods.”
Food safety expert Melvin Kramer told Vox that in the case of the Trader Joe’s recalls specifically, the side-by-side nature of the recalls was likely coincidence. Still, the way Trader Joe’s does its business might make the company more susceptible to recalls in general. Because Trader Joe’s works with many small suppliers rather than a few big ones, Kramer explains, the company is more vulnerable to hiccups on production lines and slips in standards. Such is the apparent price of its “more unique, artisanal food experiences,” as Vox puts it. That, of course, is partially speculation on Kramer’s part. But it does stand to reason that the more suppliers you work with, the more issues may come up.
Whatever the cause, we can hope that companies continue to be proactive and issue voluntary recalls when a potential issue arises. Best case scenario, the most unexpected thing about our “Unexpected Cheddar Soup” is how flavorful it is.