PennPIRG Education Fund
Consumers have a right to know about food recalls to protect their health from dangerous pathogens, chunks of metal, and undeclared allergens. But U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s survey of 26 of the largest grocery stores in the United States to determine the efficacy of their policies and practices notifying consumers about food recalls, most failed.
Our survey started by sending out questionnaires about recall policies, efforts to directly notify consumers and posting signs in the store. But when most stores declined to respond, and the few respondents only answered a handful of questions, we did what any concerned consumer might if they had a significant amounts of free time: a significant review of all publicly available information about supermarket’s recall efforts. We examined company websites, terms of service, and privacy policies.
The threat is real, our defense is weak
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans contract a foodborne illness yearly with 128,000 people hospitalized and 3,000 dead as a result of these illnesses.
The food safety system uses two lines of defense to help prevent this threat. First, a series of inspections and enforcement measures identify hazardous products before they make it to store shelves and Americans’ plates. Second, when a foodborne pathogen or other threats are still sold for consumption, the recall system attempts to remove the food from store shelves as quickly as possible and alerts consumers about the hazard. While not all illnesses are connected to a source, removing contaminated food from the market helps protect the public.
A myriad of actions could improve both lines of defense, but this report focuses on the second — and specifically efforts to notify the public of recalls.
A successful recall system aims to notify everyone who delivers, serves or purchases poisoned food. Effective communication about recalls is more important than ever to combat foodborne illness. Between 2013-2019, the most hazardous meat and poultry recalls increased 85% while recalls overseen by FDA such as produce and processed food has decreased by 8.4%. Whether it’s Salmonella in beef, or E. coli in flour, communication with consumers has clearly been an issue because of the number of cases where consumers continue to get sick after a recall is issued.
Despite this trend, and regular foodborne illness outbreaks, the current food safety system focuses heavily on getting recalled food off of store shelves quickly through a well-defined process followed by regulatory agencies, manufacturers and retailers for removing products. It is the last audience, the individual consumer, who is often left unaware because the recall system requires either proactive action to find alerts or hearing about a recall through media coverage. This can leave contaminated food in pantries, refrigerators and freezers for days or months after a recall.
Stores can play a key role in customer notification as they are access points in the food safety system that consumers most regularly and frequently interact with. And often, customers return to the same store again and again, so understanding that stores notification policies are critical.