Major recalls often alarm people, but recalls aren't always associated with illnesses or outbreaks, Buchanan said. Sometimes, routine testing turns up bacteria or unlisted allergens in a product, leading a company to initiate a recall to stay on the safe side.
In 2008, for example, Kraft Foods recalled 2.8 million pounds of chicken because of potential Listeria contamination, even though not a single related illness was reported.
Often, though, outbreaks and recalls go together, like the 2010 Salmonella contamination in eggs, which made some 1,600 people ill and led Hillendale farms to call back hundreds of millions of eggs.
As people move away from processed foods and towards more fresh produce, the risk of bacterial contamination tends to rise, Buchanan said, simply because farms are -- by definition -- not pristine environments.
Educating yourself about food safety can help.
"You have to buy food from reputable dealers," Buchanan said. "Store them appropriately, eat a varied diet and when they get to the end of their shelf life, throw things out."