Arizona PIRG Education Fund: 128,000 Americans Hospitalized Per Year From Foodborne Illness; Grocers, Government Need To Better Warn Consumers About Recalls

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According to the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled 225 varieties of bagged lettuce, spinach and salad products in December because of potentially deadly contamination it took the FDA a week to post a public notice on its web site. While many stores quickly notify customers of recalls one way or another, they’re not required to, and their practices are neither uniform nor always timely. Meanwhile, the ​​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimatesthat one in six Americans get sick each year from foodborne diseases. Of those,128,000 wind up in the hospital and 3,000 die.

“Grocers and the government need to do a better job warning consumers of food products that could make them sick,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. “While it’s horrifying that eating contaminated chocolate, fruit or salad could make you deathly ill, it’s even worse when you realize that some food poisoning easily could be prevented with better public awareness.”

In a new report, Food for thought: Are your groceries safe?, Arizona PIRG Education Fund surveyed 50 of the largest grocery and convenience store chains nationwide on their notification practices and talked to experts about what needs to change to improve both communication and public safety.

Among our findings:

●      Only half of the retailers told us they notify customers by phone, text, or email within one business day.

●      One-third of the retailers put the onus on customers to check the store’s website or social media accounts for recall notices.

●      Although federal law requires more robust notifications — including in-store signs — under an 11-year-old law, the guidelines are neither finalized nor enforced. 

●      Incorporating better use of technology, a tactic the food industry association supports, could help significantly.

“Averaging a half-dozen food recalls a week for the last five years is obviously way too many,” Murray said. “Ultimately, our country needs to improve its food production process to reduce the need for recalls in the first place. In the meantime, grocery shoppers should at least get the timely information they need to stay healthy.”

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s report also includes tips for consumers on steps they can take to keep up with food recalls; tips on how to read “best by/use by” package labels to understand food expiration dates; and tips on how to save money at the grocery store, despite rising food prices.