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Food Recall Failure

Will your supermarket warn you about hazardous food?

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.

Select your store from the dropdown menu below to see the details of its grade.

Click here to download the full report for more information on our grading criteria.

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.

TAKE A POLL
Which of these food recalls did you hear about? (check all you remember)
E. coli linked to romaine lettuce, November 2019
E. coli in various flours, November 2019
Metal in Tyson chicken strips, May 2019
Salmonella in JBS beef, October 2018
I didn't hear about any of these recalls
Supermarkets fail to warn the public of recalls

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund Food Recall Failure report evaluates supermarkets on publicly available information regarding three different areas of recall notification: store policies, in-store customer notification, and direct customer notification.

Harris Teeter, Kroger, Smith's and Target were the only stores to receive a passing grade by providing adequate information about their recall notification policies to the public.

Eighty-four percent of grocery store chains failed to provide any public description of their process for notifying customers about recalls. This critical failure leaves consumers to seek out this information and risk inconsistent implementation by individual stores.

More than half of surveyed grocery store chains report some program to directly notify consumers about recalls through email or phone. In most cases, we were unable to find out when the program is activated, how customers participate, or what information is included in the notifications — limiting its potential effectiveness.

No store provided information online about where recall notices are located in stores. Notices may be placed at customer service desks, checkout counters, store shelves or elsewhere in the store. Customers shouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to find out if food they recently purchased was recalled. Most people shop frequently at a single store, so knowledge of how that store conducts in-store notification would allow consumers to regularly check for product recalls.

Grocery stores can do so much more

Grocery stores are in a unique position to keep shoppers safe by effectively informing them about food recalled due to a variety of hazards. Through loyalty programs and purchase histories, stores have unique information about consumers that should allow them to provide targeted alerts to customers about recalled products. Stores can see sales of products drop after recalls and may receive some blame for failing to notify consumers. But, proactively warning customers they may have purchased recalled food is more than a critical mechanism to protect public health — it could help inoculate the grocery store from consumer outrage.

Until we know what stores' existing policies are, and customers can easily request information, recall notification will not reach its full potential.

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