No matter where you shop, you trust that your local grocery store will post warnings and notices about food recalls. When food products are recalled, you also hope that the products are removed from shelves before anyone is harmed. Unfortunately, food safety experts believe that grocery stores are not doing enough to warn consumers about food recalls.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) recently concluded a study about grocery store practices for notifying consumers about recalls. PIRG included 26 major grocery stores in the study, including Kroger, Safeway, Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. The results of the study, titled “Food Recall Failure,” highlight alarming details about grocery store practices.
PIRG Studies Grocery Stores and Food Recalls
In August 2019, PIRG, a consumer watchdog group, sent surveys to 26 of the nation’s leading grocery store companies. The survey included questions about food recall policies and how stores notify customers. Only a small number of stores agreed to complete the survey. The few stores that did complete the survey answered only some of the questions.
In response, PIRG set out to find information on their own. They reviewed all information publicly available on each grocery chain’s recall efforts. This review includes the company websites, privacy policies, terms of service and more. This investigation found that 84 percent of grocery stores fail to “adequately inform the public about recall notification efforts.” Furthermore, those stores did not provide information about how to sign up for notification or where to find recall information.
PIRG set a letter grading system for grocery stores, and only four received a “passing” grade. Those four – Target, Kroger, Smith’s and Harris Teeter – each received a grade of “C.” All of the other stores reviewed received an “F.” The authors who wrote the PIRG report noted,
“This response is insufficient. Consumers have a right to know about food recalls to protect their health from dangerous pathogens, chunks of metal, and unlabeled allergens.”
The PIRG report notes that 58 percent of grocery stores have phone or email notification programs, but only eight of the 15 brands reviewed have programs that clearly inform customers about the system and how it works. None of the stores reviewed provided information about food recalls on their website, such as where recall notices can be found in stores, or how customers can get help with a recalled product.
Insufficient Food Recall Information Puts Consumers at Risk
When consumers are not informed about food recalls clearly, they can very easily miss media coverage or word-of-mouth. That means that potentially dangerous food products can stay in kitchens, refrigerators or pantries for weeks or even months after a recall. With the rate of food recalls growing, food safety experts and consumer advocates are concerned that consumers are being needlessly put at risk.
Research shows that hazardous poultry and meat recalls have increased by 85 percent between 2013 and 2019. During the same period, produce and processed food recalls have decreased by 8.4 percent. Even with that decrease, there have been several major recalls causing harm to hundreds of people.
You may recall the recent multi-state E. coli outbreak that sickened 167 people across 27 states. That outbreak was linked to romaine lettuce sold in California. Another notable recall is Tyson frozen chicken strips, which were recalled due to possible contamination with metal particles. That recall included a massive 12 million pounds of chicken products.
Without proper notification, consumers may purchase products that are dangerous. PIRG believes that food recalls – especially Class I recalls – should be posted clearly on store shelves and at cash registers. They recommend grocery stores post recall notices for at least two weeks for dry items and at least one month for frozen items.
PIRG also recommends that stores develop an easy way to notify regular customers about recalls. Most grocery stores have loyalty programs that send emails or text messages. Sending a notification about food recalls could potentially save lives. A report from USA Today recommends that consumers be proactive on their own in the meantime. The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) both have websites and social media accounts that may offer information about food recalls.
Foodborne Illness Rates in the United States
While food recalls may seem relatively uncommon to many consumers, the rate of foodborne illness is exactly the opposite. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 48 million people develop foodborne illnesses each year. This includes dangerous illnesses like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria.
Of those millions of sicknesses, around 128,000 people require hospitalization. The CDC estimates that around 3,000 people die of foodborne illnesses each year. These rates of foodborne illness are more than alarming. The fact that many illnesses may be preventable is even more so.
Consumers are often the last audience to receive notice of a food recall. Many times, they only discover the recall because a shelf is empty or they see a notice online. That, unfortunately, does not equate with protecting consumers who may have recalled products already in their homes. Consequently, consumers must be a focus of improving food safety and recall measures.