By: Heather Williams

Publix, a privately owned grocery chain operating 1,146 stores throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, has issued an immediate recall. On May 8, 2017, Publix announced a recall for their private label of artichoke and spinach dip sold in the refrigerator cases in store delis for possible health risk.  This is due to the possibility of small glass fragment contamination.

This recall involves the 16oz artichoke and spinach dip sold at stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee with UPC code 000-41415-15961 with use by date May 16 A1 and May 16 C1.

According to Maria Brous, Publix media and community relations director, “[Publix] was made aware of potentially impacted product through customer complaints.” Publix took immediate action to remove products from store shelves and announcing the recall.  “As part of our commitment to food safety, potentially impacted product has been removed from all store shelves,” said Brous.  Customers with additional questions may call Publix Customer Care Department at 1-800-242-1227 or the US Food and Drug Administration at 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3366).

Let’s Talk About Food Contamination

Physical contamination is one of the lowest reported food recalls, but the implications are serious.  Why is it the least reported?  Most people are either unaware of the contamination and consume the food anyway.  Sometimes people simply do not report it.

We hear a lot about food contamination these days with recalls in the news.  Generally the recall is due to a risk of illness.  But there is more to food contamination than listeria.  What exactly is food contamination?  Contamination can be broken down into three categories.  Chemical, biological, and physical.

Chemical. Chemical contamination generally includes chemicals such as cleaning agents and pesticides but also can include allergens that end up in the food.  This can be accidental or intentional in nature.

Biological. Biological contamination includes microbes such as salmonella and listeria that end up in the food whether spread by infected food handlers, poor manufacturing hygiene, or food sourcing.  This type of contamination can lead to outbreaks, where the biological component can spread from person to person after consumption of the food, leading to individuals who were not directly affected by the recall becoming ill.

Physical. Physical contamination, like the glass reported to be found in the Publix artichoke and spinach dip, involves non-food objects not intentionally part of the food.  The contaminants range from dirt and hair to plastic and glass, and any unintended object in between such as toothpicks or Styrofoam.

How Does Something Like This Happen?

Physical food contamination could be a result of an accident, failure or absence of protective policies, or intentional contamination.  Intentional contamination is criminal and an entire other subject, so lets stick to understanding accidental and policy deficiencies.

Procedural failure.  Physical contamination can occur when written procedures to minimize physical contamination do not exist or are not followed.  In this case, the establishment has lapse in training or forethought to contamination management.  For example, employees not wearing hair restraints could risk hair falling into food.  Employees earrings or earrings could lead to stones or items being lost into the food.  Artificial nails and polish can flake off and contaminate foods. Placing shelving above the preparation area, presents a risk of items being put on the shelf to fall into the food.  Food should be stored with a cover or plastic wrap to prevent items from falling into the food product.  Local health departments have requirements in place to prevent these instances, but each establishment is responsible for enforcing these requirements on a day to day basis.

Poor preparation of food. Physical contamination can occur when proper care is not made when preparing food.  This happens when bones remain in foods such as fish or chicken when deboning.  It involves not properly removing packaging materials from food such as food wrap being cooked into the food.  Additionally, failure to remove non-food materials used when preparing foods such as toothpicks and parchment paper can pose as a physical contaminant.  This may be a result of deficiency in training or carelessness of the employee processing the food.  The establishment and management are responsible for the food produced and must enforce good food preparation practices to prevent this type of physical contamination from occurring.

Appropriate equipment usage. Physical contamination can occur when appropriate equipment is not used or equipment is not maintained properly.  For example, shatter proof light bulbs with appropriate shields should be used in prep areas.  This prevents glass from falling into food that is being prepared if a bulb bursts or get knocked and broken.  Can opener blades should be cleaned after use to prevent accumulation of metal shavings that could end up in the food.  Appropriate kitchen setup and employee training is important to prevent this type of physical contamination from occurring.

Pest control.  Physical contamination can occur if pests are present in the kitchen.  Pest control should be regularly scheduled in any kitchen or food manufacturing facility to prevent rodent waste or bugs from contaminating food.  No one wants to take a bite out of food and find an unintentional extra protein source.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

When we eat prepared foods, we assume they are safe.  We obtain them from a reputable restaurant or grocery store.  Why would we suspect something wrong with it?  The food preparers are human and sometimes mistakes happen.  As we explored all the ways that contamination could happen, it brings the responsibility back to the consumer to check the food before we feed it to our families or eat it ourselves.  While chemical and biological contamination is not something we can check for, we can take a moment and examine the food before we begin eating.  If you are serving a small child, take a look at their plate to make sure everything looks right.

Most importantly, report the issue when it happens.  When physical contamination goes unreported, the establishment does not know there is a problem.  You are leaving the potential for other people to be harmed if you do not report it.  Consider the Publix glass contamination in the artichoke and spinach dip example.  No injury or illness has been reported.  Had the customer that observed the glass simply thrown away the container and did not report it to Publix, a serious injury could have occurred.  Reporting the contaminant allowed Publix to immediately take action to pull the product from the shelf and issue a recall.