New report: Food for thought: Are your groceries safe?

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CLEVELAND — 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. 

“We need to do a better job on the easy part – warning consumers what could make them sick,” said Teresa Murray, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s consumer watchdog. “It’s horrifying that eating contaminated chocolate, fruit or salad could make you deathly ill, but 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?, U.S. 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.

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

  • Better use of technology, a tactic the food industry association supports, could help significantly.

“We’ve been averaging a half-dozen food recalls a week for the last five years. That’s obviously way too many,” Murray said. ”This country needs to improve its food production process to reduce the need for recalls in the first place. But that’s the difficult part. So, for now, we at least should make sure grocery shoppers get the timely information they need to stay healthy.” 

Our report also includes tips for consumers on steps they can take to keep up with food recalls.

See our tips on how to save money at the grocery store, despite rising food prices.

See our tips on how to read “best by/use by” package labels to understand food expiration dates.