When a product has been recalled and disappears from store shelves, that includes virtual store shelves. Yet jars of I.M. Healthy’s recalled soy butter, a peanut butter substitute, were available from a third-party seller on Amazon’s site last week, meaning that customers could potentially get a large helping of E. coli along with their sandwiches.
Ordering some (potential) E. coli
Food Safety News reported that Linda Harris, the chair of the Food Science and Technology Department at the University of California-Davis, noticed that the soy butter was still listed on the site. She went ahead and ordered it, paying $50 to get three jars of the recalled, potentially contaminated product delivered to her doorstep.
Wait… why did three jars of sandwich spread cost $50? That’s nearly $17 per jar; specialty foods aren’t usually that expensive.
For comparison’s sake, a competing soy butter brand, Don’t Go Nuts, costs $13.28 for two jars (a unit cost of $6.64 per jar) on Amazon today. We don’t know what the market for illegal soy butter is, but at least one seller thought that there was one. (We’ve contacted the seller, and will update this post if we hear back from them.)
Amazon declined to comment for this story, instead pointing us to their product safety page. What the mega-retailer doesn’t say is how it handles recalls for third-party merchants, and whether it allows products that have been recalled in the past to be listed and sold months or years after the recall. Perhaps this item slipped through the cracks because a 3-pack is listed as a separate product.
“When we learn of a recall, we suspend all impacted product offerings from our website and quarantine any related inventory in our fulfillment centers,” Amazon says on its product safety page. “We also reach out to any customers that previously purchased impacted products (and any seller that may have offered such products) to inform them about the recall.”
It’s the law
The problem is that it’s illegal to sell products that are part of a recall, whether it’s at your garage sale, in a big-box retail store, or through an online mega-retail platform.
While the government won’t chase after you for selling an old crib in your garage sale, it will go after retailers caught selling recalled products, like the $5.7 million civil penalty against Home Depot announced last week for selling 28 different recalled products, or a $3.8 million penalty imposed on Best Buy for selling recalled gadgets and appliances.
Coral Beach of Food Safety News noted in a column today that there were other retailers with I.M. Healthy products listed on other e-commerce sites as of this morning, even though banning recalled items from sale should be a simple matter.
I.M. Healthy filed for bankruptcy in May, and the FDA shut down Dixie Dew, the soy butter processing facility, in March. Soy butter has a long shelf life, though, and the product may keep making people sick for years into the future. What no one expected, though, was for retailers to keep selling the butter almost six months after it was pulled from stores.
In a statement to Consumerist, a rep for the FDA says the agency has verified that this listing has been removed from Amazon.
“We are investigating further to determine how the products were still available for sale,” says the FDA. “Many online retailers will create filters to prevent recalled products from being relisted for sale. Unfortunately, some listings make it through those filters. The suspension order is still in effect. The SoyNut Butter Co. is now out of business.”
For more information from the FDA about this outbreak, go to this page on FDA.gov.