New Investigation: Supermarkets failing to warn public about food recalls

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Arizona PIRG Education Fund

According to a new report by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, Americans are not hearing about food recalls, and that communication breakdown is having serious repercussions for public health. The consumer group points to the fact that, less than two years ago, people kept getting sick for months after 12 million pounds of Salmonella-contaminated beef was recalled. The pattern has reportedly been repeated for other recalls even when news outlets have publicized warnings from food safety agencies.

Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s Food Recall Failure: Will your supermarket warn you about hazardous food? finds that most grocery stores — which should be some of the best sources for consumers to learn about recalls — don’t make that information easy for consumers to find. The scorecard gave a failing grade for recall information to 84 percent of the nation’s 26 largest supermarket chains including Albertson’s, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.  

“Supermarkets should be our best recall notification system, but instead, we found that shoppers must go on a nearly impossible scavenger hunt to learn if they’ve purchased contaminated food,” said Arizona PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog Adam Garber. “Stores already use modern technology to track customers, place products, and target us with ads. There’s no reason why they can’t also keep us healthy.”

Arizona PIRG Education Fund assessed supermarkets on publicly available information about whether they tell customers about the following: recall policies, in-store notification, and direct customer notification. Findings include:

●       22 out of 26 stores failed to adequately inform the public about recall notification efforts, how to sign up for direct notifications, or where to find in-store postings. Only Harris Teeter, Kroger, Smith’s and Target received a passing grade.

●       58 percent of stores reported some program to directly notify consumers about recalls through email or phone. Of those 15 stores, only eight made it clear how customers could participate, how the system works, or what information is included in warnings.

●       Not a single store provided information online about whether recall notices are posted at customer service desks, checkout counters, or store shelves.

While it’s possible that some of the stores have stronger policies than researchers were able to find, most declined to answer the survey — and the few that did only responded to a handful of questions. The group found the lack of transparency surprising given the potentially dangerous impacts on customers of stores that consider themselves integral parts of so many American communities.

Food Recall Failure gives each grocery store a letter grade, ranks them on the main criteria, and provides contact information so consumers can contact them to get more information on recalls. But Arizona PIRG Education Fund recommends that until stores improve their notification programs and reveal how shoppers can sign up, consumers should sign up for recall alerts using these instructions.

“Every store should have a robust notification program, but right now we’re largely in the dark about what happens because notifications are difficult to find,” said Arizona PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog Associate Dylan Robb. “Grocery stores might not be responsible for the recall, but they can improve transparency about recall notification efforts.”