New investigation: Supermarkets failing to warn public about food recalls

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Emma Horst-Martz

Former Advocate, PennPIRG

Consumers struggle to stay updated about these health hazards

PennPIRG Education Fund

PHILADELPHIA — Americans are not hearing about food recalls, and that communication breakdown is having serious repercussions for public health. For example, less than two years ago, people kept getting sick for months after 12 million pounds of Salmonella-contaminated beef was recalled. The pattern has repeated for other recalls even when news outlets have publicized warnings from food safety agencies. 

A new report finds that most grocery stores — which should be some of the best sources for consumers to learn about recalls — don’t make it easy for consumers to find. PennPIRG PIRG Education Fund’s Food Recall Failure: Will your supermarket warn you about hazardous food? scorecard gave a failing grade to 84 percent of the nation’s 26 largest supermarket chains. Chains receiving a failing grade include Aldi, Whole Foods, and Walmart.

“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 PennPIRG Education Fund Campaign Associate Emma Horst-Martz. “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.”

U.S. PIRG 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 our researchers were able to find, most declined to answer the survey — and the few that did only responded to a handful of questions. That lack of transparency was 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 you can contact them to get more information on recalls. But PennPIRG Education Fund recommends that until stores improve their notification programs and reveal how shoppers can sign up, you 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 Horst-Martz. “They might not be responsible for the recall, but they can make a difference. We look forward to seeing improved transparency about recall notification efforts — and improved programs.”

Congressman Dwight Evans, D-PA-3rd, said, “I commend PIRG for working to get consumers vital recall information to keep them from getting food-borne illnesses. Americans need to be able to trust that their food is safe to eat.”


PennPIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful interests that threaten our health, safety, and wellbeing.