U.S. System Leaves Consumers Vulnerable

May 26, 2022 – When it comes to finding out about food recalls from a local grocery store, it might be worth shopping around.

Some stores, like Eagle Foods and Costco, take decisive action when a food manufacturer or the FDA issues a safety alert. They text or robocall their loyalty card customers so they know they recently purchased a potentially dangerous item.

With the JIF peanut butter recall over possible salmonella contamination announced May 20, for example, these two stores sent out notifications to customers within hours.

In contrast, other grocers like Publix and Aldi require customers to check the company website for recalls. This approach puts the responsibility on each shopper to protect themselves and their loved ones, according to Food for Thought: Are Your Groceries Safe, a report issued today by the Public Interest Research Group.

The CDC estimates that 28,000 Americans are hospitalized each year and about 3,000 die from foodborne diseases every year.

The report names names – from Acme/Albertson’s to Winn Dixie – regarding the 50 largest U.S. grocers and their strategy, or lack of strategy, on food recalls.

When study author Teresa Murray was asked if this surprised her, she said, “Yes and no.” She divides food retailers into two groups: the larger grocery companies whose main focus is food, vs. convenience or drugstores that carry some food items, but it’s not their main business.

Murray is surprised that not all larger grocers that can alert customers about a specific recall – by matching specific purchases with loyalty card contact information, for example – actually do so.

Smaller retailers and those that don’t offer loyalty cards are limited in terms of targeting specific buyers. But they can use other techniques, like posting food recall flyers in their stores. The challenge with physical notices is if a lettuce recall is posted in the produce aisle, but someone who bought it doesn’t come back to the store for a few days or more, or skips the produce section on their next visit, they may not see it in time.

A Recall a Day Keeps the Consumer Away?

The sheer volume of food recalls presents another challenge. With 325 such recalls issued every year on average for the last 5 years, people would be overwhelmed receiving an alert about once every day. That could lead to what the report calls “recall fatigue,” meaning people would be less likely to pay attention after a while.

That’s why targeting messages to only people who bought the specific food item involved in a recall would be ideal, Murray says.

Another potential solution would be for food retailers to offer customers the ability to receive limited notifications about specific recalls. The notices could be tailored to a specific food allergy or to only Class I recalls – the ones that pose a more serious threat to health – for example. Stores that offer such services should also promote the option to customers, Murray says.

A related idea would be offering customers the option to provide their phone number at checkout, reassuring them they would only be notified when an item on their receipt is later recalled.

Overall, there is no one solution that will work for everyone, Murray says, and she recommends a multi-layer approach to reach as many customers as possible. After all, she says, people die from illness related to food recalls, including some preventable deaths from food eaten even after a recall is announced.

‘Food’ Is the FDA’s First Name

Where is the FDA in all this? There are only two federal requirements regarding food recalls: The manufacturer has to create a news release, and the FDA has to post the recall on its Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts website. The Food Safety and Monitoring Act, signed in 2011, would grant the agency greater power over food recalls, but its provisions have yet to be fully enacted.

There can also be quite a time lag before official food recall notices are posted on the FDA site. A “particularly egregious example” cited in the report is the Dole lettuce recall announced by the FDA and CDC on Dec. 22, 2021, for potential listeria contamination. Murray notes that the CDC investigation traced cases of related illness back to 2014.

More recently, the baby formula shortage can be traced in part to the shutdown of an Abbott manufacturing facility in Sturgis, MI, over safety concerns. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, testified in Congress this week that the agency was too slow to react to a whistleblower report about unsafe conditions at the plant.

The commissioner blamed challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic for the slow response but also said an error in the FDA mailroom caused an important piece of mail to go missing.

Steps Consumers Can Take

Timed to post the same day as the PIRG report, Murray also posted nine tips for consumers who do not want to wait for grocers or the federal government to act further on recalls.

Tips include:

  • Ask at the customer service desk how they notify customers about recalls.
  • Opt into any notification services they offer, especially if you or a family member has a severe food allergy or high-risk medical condition.
  • Take photos of packaging for food such as onions, potatoes, or apples that you commonly transfer to a bowl or other container at home, in case there is a relevant recall.

“Over the past decade, companies have improved upon the recall response time,” says Jim Dudlicek, a spokesman for the National Grocers Association, a trade association of more than 1,500 independent retail and wholesale grocers.

Communication among the food supply chain players has improved as well, Dudlicek says, “meaning products are pulled from the shelves faster, or never even make it onto the shelves during a recall.”

FMI, the Food Industry Association, which represents large retail grocers, provided comment within the PIRG report but did not respond to a request for more comment.

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