About 800 foodborne disease outbreaks are reported in the United States annually. Few are associated with food recalls. We compared 226 outbreaks associated with food recalls with those not associated with recalls during 2006–2016. Recall-associated outbreaks had, on average, more illnesses per outbreak and higher proportions of hospitalisations and deaths than non-recall-associated outbreaks. The top confirmed aetiology for recall-associated outbreaks was Salmonella. Pasteurised and unpasteurised dairy products, beef and molluscs were the most frequently implicated foods. The most common pathogen−food pairs for outbreaks with recalls were Escherichia coli-beef and norovirus-molluscs; the top pairs for non-recall-associated outbreaks were scombrotoxin-fish and ciguatoxin-fish. For outbreaks with recalls, 48% of the recalls occurred after the outbreak, 27% during the outbreak, 3% before the outbreak, and 22% were inconclusive or had unknown recall timing. Fifty per cent of recall-associated outbreaks were multistate, compared with 2% of non-recall-associated outbreaks. The differences between recall-associated outbreaks and non-recall-associated outbreaks help define the types of outbreaks and food vehicles that are likely to have a recall. Improved outbreak vehicle identification and traceability of rarely recalled foods could lead to more recalls of these products, resulting in fewer illnesses and deaths.