Consumers questioning the safety of their food products in light of Castleberry Food Co.'s massive recall may be surprised to learn that recalls are not mandated by the federal government.

Consumers questioning the safety of their food products in light of Castleberry Food Co.'s massive recall may be surprised to learn that recalls are not mandated by the federal government.

Castleberry, of Augusta, Ga., recalled more than 90 canned-meat products July 21 after botulism was found in chili sauce manufactured at one of its Georgia plants. Tens of millions of cans are expected to be pulled from shelves in what could be the largest recall in 30 years.

The government has warned consumers to take urgent action to rid their shelves of the recalled products, which range from chili sauce to corned beef hash to dog food. Ingesting trace amounts — or even inhaling spores — of botulism from tainted food can be harmful, health officials warn.

Yet food and other product recalls remain a voluntary process instigated by manufacturers. And there are no federal fines or penalties levied against companies whose products are subject to recall, said Amanda Eamich, spokesperson for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"There is no such thing as a mandatory recall," said Eamich. "However, no company has ever refused a recall for FSIS."

While federal oversight agencies cannot instigate a recall, they do have the legal authority to detain and seize products in order to protect the public from health problems or possible death. They also can enforce product safety requirements at the manufacturing plant, said Eamich.

"Protecting the public health is in everyone's best interest," Eamich said.

The USDA employs 7,600 FSIS inspectors to ensure meat, poultry and processed egg products produced in 6,000 U.S. plants are "safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled," Eamich said.

Castleberry voluntarily initiated its recall after four people (two in Texas and two in Indiana) contracted botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by Clostridium botulinum, a toxin that attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis of the breathing muscles, arms and legs.

Castleberry temporarily closed its Augusta, Ga., plant Monday, and is recalling everything made on a suspect manufacturing line. But the only products linked to illness thus far are chili sauces, said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Costco Wholesale.

Wilson said Castleberry contacted him immediately July 21 after the recall was expanded from 10 items to 90.

"They called me at home before the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) made the announcement," said Wilson.

As a members-only company, Costco is able to track its purchasers of the potentially tainted food.

"We sent out over a quarter-million letters to people who have purchased the products," Wilson said.

A possible fifth illness from Castleberry products came to light Friday. According to the California Department of Public Health, a woman in San Diego County reported that she ate one of the recalled products, Kroger Chili with Beans, and was hospitalized on July 5 for 10 days, news reports said.

Health officials continue to worry that cans containing the deadly toxin may still be circulating in the general population. Wilson echoed those concerns, saying the general public might not have heard about the recall, particularly those who patronize food banks or smaller mom-and-pop stores.

"The problem is the word isn't getting out," said Wilson. "If this was Paris Hilton, every kindergartner would know."

Oregon state health officials urge consumers to check their cupboards for any of the 90 recalled canned food items.

"Although no Oregon cases have been identified, we would encourage people to check the canned food in their houses," said Dr. Susan Allan, state public health director in the Oregon Department of Human Services.

"Botulism can be very serious, resulting in hospitalization for weeks or months, and sometimes death," she said.

Symptoms of botulism include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness. If untreated, the illness may progress to include paralysis of the face, arms, breathing muscles, trunk and legs. As even minimal exposure can be potentially lethal, questionable cans should not be opened, health officials said. They should be doubled-bagged in plastic and placed in the trash.

Allan advises consumers to double-check their canned food to make sure none of the recalled items are on their shelves.

"We are also asking their help in getting the word out to family or friends that may not be aware of the news reports," she said.

Castleberry has hired an outside firm to visit more than 8,500 retailers around the country in an effort to make sure all recalled products are off store shelves.

The number of people who have become ill from the Castleberry recall pales compared to other recent food recalls. Last year's outbreak of E. coli from baby spinach resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 60 people, mostly toddlers, who became ill after eating the snack food "Veggie Booty," which contained a strain of salmonella, The Associated Press reported.

FSIS records show 53 recalls of products under its jurisdiction in 2005, and 34 in 2006, Eamich said.

Recalls occur for a variety of reasons, including consumer complaints of illness, sample testing showing unsafe or improperly labeled food, inspectors finding products believed to be adulterated or misbranded, or because the company that manufactures or distributes the food informs an oversight agency of a potential hazard.

As soon as the agency learns that a potentially unsafe or mislabeled product is in commerce, it conducts a preliminary investigation to determine whether there is a need for a recall, said Eamich.

The committee comprises scientists, technical experts, field-inspection managers, enforcement personnel and communications specialists. They evaluate information from interviews with the manufacturer and any consumers who allegedly became ill or injured from eating the suspect food, discussions with field inspection and compliance personnel, and data from the suspect food itself.

If the committee recommends a recall, it classifies the recall based on relative health risks, as follows:

Class I — A health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death. Class II — A potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food. Class III — A situation in which eating the food will not cause adverse health consequences.

The Castleberry recall was listed as Class I, Eamich said. Once a recall has been deemed necessary, the manufacturer notifies its wholesalers, retailers and other distributors, said Steve Olsrud, vice president of Sherm's Thunderbird Markets Inc.

"The company sends us a notice," said Olsrud. "It usually has a big RECALL stamped on the top."

The recall information also is distributed to local public health officials, said Eamich.

"We notify physicians in the area and the CDC," she said.

Consumers generally learn of recalls through the media, Eamich said.

Recall notices include specific barcode information and often show a picture of the item, Olsrud said.

"They try to make it as clear as possible," said Olsrud.

The manufacturing company usually requests that the distributor ship the tainted product back, then refunds the money and covers all shipping costs, said Olsrud.

"They usually don't want us to throw it away," said Olsrud. "They don't want to risk anyone getting hold of a can by digging in a Dumpster."

Olsrud's stores did carry some of Castleberry's recalled canned meat items, he said.

"We did have to pull some Castleberry's," said Olsrud. "Castleberry's makes a lot of private label (food)."

As soon as his company received the recall notice, it immediately notified its stores, pulled the items and sent them back to its warehouse, Olsrud said.

"We're waiting for them to pick it up," he said. "So there's no chance of sending it back out."

If a recalled product was purchased by USDA and distributed through a food distribution program, such as school lunches, FSIS notifies the responsible agency and it holds the product, the FSIS Web site states. FSIS field enforcement personnel conduct effectiveness checks to ensure that the manufacturer makes all reasonable efforts to notify markets and stores of the recall, according to the site. Once the manufacturer meets that requirement, the recall is considered complete and no further action is expected, Eamich said.

Olsrud said customers seem to be taking the recall in stride.

"Most people are pretty calm," he said. "I don't remember anyone screaming or hollering."

In fact, sometimes consumers don't even know a product has been recalled, he said. Relating a story about a shipment of milk that the distributor determined had too much water versus milk solids, Olsrud said the matter was handled by the distributor before "anyone knew there was a problem."

Costco executive Wilson agreed recalls happen "all the time." Many times the customer is not aware of the recall as distributors pull their wares before the consumer has an opportunity to purchase the questionable item, he said.

Contaminated goods are likely to be a miniscule fraction of the amount being recalled, Olsrud said.

"I think we're pretty safe," he said.

Castleberry and FDA representatives did not return repeated phone calls from the Mail Tribune seeking comment for this story.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.