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The Worst Food-Safety Disasters Ever

Last week, the USDA put out a Class I recall notice on 8.7 million pounds of beef from one of Hot Pockets' primary suppliers. This week we look at some of the most horrible and disgusting food recalls we've ever heard about.
February 28, 2014, 4:49am
Photo via Flickr user epSos .de

Last week, the USDA put out a Class I recall notice on 8.7 million pounds of beef from Rancho Feeding, one of Hot Pockets' primary meat suppliers, citing that the company had "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." While Hot Pockets is busy recalling its Philly Steak & Cheese products, let's take a look at the grossest, most devastating food recalls ever, ranked from 1 (relatively inconvenient) to 10 (nightmarish catastrophe).


–A public-school lunch is an early exercise in suffering, as anybody who's choked down one of those dry, stick-in-your-throat burgers will attest to. So it should come as no surprise that in 2008 the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., primary supplier of ground beef to public schools and Indian reservations, initiated the largest meat recall in US history after being caught on film abusing its "downer" cows. "Downer" is a friendly word for animals that are too sick or disabled to move on their own, and the incriminating video shows two employees, who would later be charged with felony animal cruelty, dragging these cows with chains, ramming them with forklifts, and using a high-powered water hose to force them into their kill pens. Despite an attempted 143.3 million pound recall, costing taxpayers more than $150 million, much of the beef had already been consumed in school lunches. Four years later, the now-bankrupt company settled for a symbolic $500 million dollar fine (later reduced to $155 million), of which only $3 million is expected to be paid out. But don't worry: That same year, another California school lunch meat supplier was caught on camera killing its livestock inhumanely, and as a bonus, bits of plastic were found in the beef. 8/10

Image via Flickr user Mark Rain

–Since 2007, the People's Republic of China has been shit-listed by the US, Canada, the EU, Australia, and New Zealand for its unsanitary, unsafe, and deliberately deceptive manufacturing practices, with bans on things like toys, toothpaste, and pet foods. Following an investigation on substandard safety regulations stretching back to 2003, China executed the head of its food and drug administration for taking $850,000 in bribes from substandard medicine manufacturers, and the owner of Mattel's biggest supplier hanged himself in his toy factory.


The worst practice, by far, was adding a nitrogen-boosting chemical, melamine, to foods in order to make them appear to have a higher protein content. Although melamine is not harmful in small doses, when combined with a common adulterant, cyanuric acid, it can cause renal failure, and this combination was the basis of a Chinese "wheat gluten" manufactured by at least 12 companies. Pet foods found to contain the chemical may have killed as many as 8,000 pets by the time of the 2007 recall, and four years later, some 20,000 affected pet owners have yet to receive little more than half of the agreed-upon $24 million settlement. 9/10

Photo via Flickr user

–In 2008, China faced the worst food-poisoning case ever: More than 300,000 infants fell ill with kidney failure after drinking milk mixed with melamine, resulting in the deaths of six and the hospitalization of more than 54,000. The melamine came from 22 Chinese dairy companies intentionally watering down protein content and replacing it with the harmful chemical, which was potentially related to 13 earlier deaths from malnutrition after drinking watered-down milk. Despite multiple warnings to police and video evidence as early as 2006, the story was kept quiet by the greatest offender, Sanlu, a dairy distributor who offered the search engine Baidu half a million dollars to censor negative search results.

The aftermath saw nearly 30 countries impose a blanket ban on Chinese dairy, and eight members of the Communist Party were forced to resign. Thirty-six dairy suppliers were arrested, among them the general manager of Sunlu, Tian Wenhua, who was sentenced to life in prison. Two men, Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, were executed for their role in the deception; Zhang supplied 800 tons of melamine-contaminated powder, and Geng sold the tainted milk to Sanlu and other milk distributors. During the trial Geng dropped to his knees on the courtroom floor and begged the victims' families for forgiveness. Despite the massive drop in consumer confidence, and a supposed rise in manufacturing standards, unsafe practices in the industry continue to be weighed against razor-thin margins and potential profits. Oh, and the whistleblower who originally warned police of the contamination back in 2006 was murdered by paid hitmen in 2012, for a rumored $80,000. 10/10


Photo via Flickr user

–Britain's biggest food recall came in 2005 as a result of a carcinogenic food dye, Sudan 1, found in more than 400 products, including pizzas and microwave meals from companies like Pot Noodle, Heinz, and McDonalds. The dye, which is usually found in gasoline and floor polish, was added to a widely used chili powder made in India. Interestingly, the government of Sudan requested that the chemical's name be changed so as to avoid a negative connotation with the country of Sudan, where last week a pregnant woman was put on trial for being gang-raped. 6/10

–In 1985, Austria's wineries ran into a bittersweet dilemma; their low-cost "dessert-quality" wines were a huge hit for their ultra-sweet and full-bodied taste, quickly outselling similar German wines and depleting the stock of acceptable vintages. Austrian vintners were stuck with an overabundance of weak, acidic, bitter wine from some particularly unproductive years, and they needed to find a way to increase sweetness cheaply. As it turned out, sugar and other sweeteners weren't enough to convincingly improve a wine's taste profile, but antifreeze, or at least its primary ingredient, diethylene glycol, could both increase sweetness and maintain body. It also happens to cause metabolic acidosis, kidney failure, neurological damage, coma, and sometimes death. More than 350 brands were spiked with the illegal additive, sold mostly in West Germany, but found all over the world.


The scheme was discovered in June of 1985 and involved dozens of reputable winemakers, collapsing the Austrian wine market overnight. Austria went from exporting 45 million liters in 1985 to a mere 4.4 million liters in 1986. Some of the major players ended up serving relatively minor jail terms, and others were fined upwards of a million deutsche marks for their role in the deception. One winery owner committed suicide. The mayor of Rust, a small wine town in Lower Austria that produced the first detected bottle, referred to the scandal as ''the worst disaster to hit this region since World War II," and despite a leading economist's predicting that the financial effects would last only about a year, it took until 2001 for the Austrian wine economy to bounce back to its pre-1985 volume. 7/10

–In 2009, the FDA shut down the Peanut Corporation of America's peanut-butter plant in Blakely, Georgia, after revelations that the company had found salmonella in their products and ignored the findings at least 12 times since 2004. The owner, aware of the contamination, sent multiple internal memos telling workers to ignore the problem, saying "shit, just ship it. I cannot afford to lose another customer." During the FDA's inspection of the plant, inspectors also found mold, holes in the roof, dead insects, and rodent droppings. Despite the clusterfuck of unsanitary conditions, the company refused to hand over their internal records until subpoenaed through the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act, an anti-terrorism law. The case changed food safety law, making it illegal to not report contamination of food products within 24 hours. 6/10

–BONUS: Knock-off South Korean chocolates made in China circa 2007 were found to be riddled with tiny white moth larvae introduced during the manufacturing process. One out-of-country customer was told to return to China with the chocolates if he wanted a refund on his worm candy. I can see why they're executing people over there for this. GROSS