Each year, millions of Americans contract serious illnesses from eating contaminated food, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
As items are tested by the government and companies themselves, some of these contaminants surface, leading to a recall of food products. In the past few weeks alone, there have been recalls of chili kits, frozen burritos, ice cream, soy nut butter and oysters.
“Year over year, recalls have increased not only in the food industry, but in other sectors as well. Last year, there were more than 3,400 recalls — an average of 9.4 a day,” Michael Good, vice president of commercial and client services with Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS wrote in an email to Food Dive.
It is little wonder consumers may be feeling recall fatigue. How can retailers and manufacturers help shoppers filter the recall communication clutter so they hear relevant messages about what they actually buy and eat?
The high number of recalls is actually good news
“There does seem to be many more recalls these days. And in fact that may reflect several positive things,” Dr. William Hallman, professor and chair of Rutgers Department of Human Ecology told Food Dive. Hallman is familiar with the topic, having done a 2013 Food and Drug Administration study dubbed Addressing the Potential for Food Recall Fatigue while he was director of the Food Policy Institute.
He went on to explain his spin on the growing number of food recalls being good news.
“It reflects a food industry that takes contamination and foodborne illnesses seriously. Increasingly companies are willing to recall their products rather than expose customers to potential harm,” said Hallman. “So more companies are taking a cautionary approach even when the products they produce have not been definitively linked to an outbreak.
“Another reason we’re seeing more recalls is because of advancements in technology — like whole genome sequencing — that enable us to connect different cases of foodborne illness or different products contaminated with the same pathogen.”
Whole genome sequencing is quickly becoming an industry standard for improving the safety of the food supply and identifying and removing contaminated products more quickly. In many cases, products are taken off store shelves even before consumers can actually buy and eat them.
High signal-to-noise ratio tunes people out
The vast majority of Americans pay attention to food recalls, especially headline-making incidents like last year’s General Mills flour recall or the ever-expanding cheese recalls from earlier this year.
Hallman said his research through the years has shown that most people — 84% of Americans, according to his study — pay particular attention to recalls when lives are lost or there are a large number of hospitalizations. They also have a strong tendency to pass the information along to other people either by word of mouth or through social media.
Still, he said that many recalls don’t rise to the level of national prominence, so they don’t actually break through the consciousness of most Americans.
“With high profile recalls, it is more likely that consumers will hear the warning and take heed. But with so many recalls occurring, it is understandable that consumers will be unaware of many of them,” wrote Good. “Recall fatigue can have serious consequences for both consumers and companies, especially if the hazard is high. There are steps companies can take to reduce the impact of recall fatigue, such as communicating the issue clearly and repeatedly through multiple channels.”
“Recall fatigue can have serious consequences for both consumers and companies, especially if the hazard is high."
Vice president of commercial and client services, Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS
Hallman told Food Dive that even recalls that people pay close attention to don’t necessarily lead to consumers checking their homes for the recalled products. Research shows that only 60% of consumers actually look for recalled products in their own homes.
Why is this?
One reason is just the sheer number of recalls — there are lots of them. But Hallman refers to another phenomenon he calls the signal-to-noise ratio.
“Most of the recalls out there probably apply to products that you don’t buy,” Hallman said. “So you’re constantly bombarded by information that just doesn’t apply to you. And it’s a laborious task for shoppers to check products and codes associated with recalls, so it’s easy to tune out. The trick is to zero in on the products that you do buy.”
Fixing the recall communications system
Governing bodies like the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture may need a better system to help consumers figure out whether a product has been recalled.
“You can go to recalls.gov for the definitive source of all products that have been recalled. Manufacturers will also put out press releases. The FDA and USDA will put out press releases. But the information isn’t listed in a way that makes it easy for a consumer to recognize that they own a product which may be recalled,” Hallman explained.
He cites a huge 2009 peanut product recall by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a case that sickened thousands due to salmonella contamination, as an example. It wasn’t a single product that was impacted, but thousands because PCA supplied peanuts as an ingredient to many other manufacturers.
So the onerous task to check the entire recall list falls on the consumer.
“First, you need to check whether your product may contain peanuts or peanut products,” said Hallman. “Then you go to the FDA website and search through thousands of products to figure out whether yours is on the list or not. Then you must figure out whether the date codes match up or not."
Given the complicated process, consumers usually behave in one of two ways, Hallman said.
“Half of them ask themselves: Do I really want to go through the process to determine whether this pack of peanut butter crackers is one that’s been recalled or not? The answer is no. But better safe than sorry, so I’ll just discard it. The other half of consumers say: I already ate the other five packs of peanut butter crackers in this package and I didn’t get sick. So forget going through the [recall] process, I’m just going to eat the rest.”
Despite a seemingly tedious and burdensome process, consumers are intent on taking food safety into their own hands. According to the Food Marketing Institute U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends study, 61% of shoppers say they rely on themselves as individuals to ensure food safety, up from 55% in 2009.
Shoppers often use social media to get the information they need to know and filter out the rest. For example, anyone not suffering from food allergies can essentially ignore a host of allergen-related and mislabeling recalls.
Consumers also rely heavily on the FDA (54%) and USDA (50%) to ensure food safety. Both agencies offer consumers the opportunity to register for email notifications of recalls and public health alerts and follow their Twitter feeds.
How stores can help filter the recall noise
Most shoppers — an astonishingly high 94% — trust their grocery store to ensure that the food they purchase is safe, according to the FMI study.
“Consumers are realistic. If the recall is related to a branded item, the blame will always go back to the brand. When consumers buy a recalled product, they know it’s something the retailer bought as well. They don’t fault the retailer,” Diana Sheehan, director of retail insights with Kantar Retail, told Food Dive.
“Consumers are realistic. If the recall is related to a branded item, the blame will always go back to the brand. ...They don’t fault the retailer.”
Director of retail insights, Kantar Retail
Fortunately though, there are some steps retailers can take to help consumers sort through the recall minutia — for instance, by posting information about recalls via shelf tags and other in-store signage.
Hallman said, “Stores will put up a shelf tag that says: ‘If you bought this brand of peanut butter in the past 6 months, please return for a refund.’ They also use shelf tags to indicate which brands were not involved. This helps shoppers better identify what products are OK versus the recalled items while also reducing food waste.”
FMI data indicate that 39% of shoppers would like stores to post notices where the product is sold in the store.
For consumers who already purchased recalled products, many retailers are beginning to use membership or loyalty cards for direct notifications. At checkout, shoppers could receive a Catalina-like coupon or a warning printed on their register receipt — which Kroger now does — that a previously purchased product has been recalled.
“These methods are dependent on customers signing up for that program, so widespread announcements such as press releases and social media posts are still necessary to help protect the public,” wrote Good.
Retailers also may choose to email or phone consumers if there’s a problem with products they’ve purchased. According to FMI, more than half (56%) of shoppers would prefer to receive food safety recall alerts from their supermarkets by email, while roughly a quarter are open to text messages.
Few retailers are set up to mine their databases in this manner, which Sheehan says is a huge missed opportunity — especially for those retailers with increasingly sophisticated shopper data.
Sheehan did, however, recount a recent incident in which she was notified about a product recall via a Sam’s Club email as an example of a retailer mining their member database to provide much needed information for customers.
“I did not know there was a national recall on the product until Sam’s told me. That, at this point in time based on what I’ve seen in the retail space, is completely revolutionary,” said Sheehan. “Not only did they communicate and educate me about the recall, but then they gave me a solution — returning the item for a full refund — that could easily help me fix the problem.”
Be proactive and transparent
Illness and death caused by food safety issues each year is devastating. The reputational and economic effects of food recalls also can be significant and something companies must be diligent to ward against.
According to the 2017 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study, a product recall due to contamination consistently ranks among the list of biggest risks to corporate reputation as cited by 65% of Americans.
Thus it’s imperative that consumer brands, retailers and other cogs in the food supply system remain proactive in order to keep consumers out of harm’s way when it comes to food safety. Getting in front and being transparent is the best way to regain consumer trust.
Hallman told Food Dive, “Dealing with food safety and recalls is a really difficult communications task. When you issue recalls related to food products, you want people to engage in a particular action for a short period of time and then go back to the initial action. In other words, don’t eat this particular product with these particular identifying marks on it. But then when the recall is over, we want you to go back to eating that product.
“The trick is getting people to pay attention enough that they actually go look for the contaminated product. But you don’t scare the heck out of them in the process so that they never go back to eating those particular products."
Dr. William Hallman
Professor and chair, Rutgers Department of Human Ecology
“The trick is getting people to pay attention enough that they actually go look for the contaminated product. But you don’t scare the heck out of them in the process so that they never go back to eating those particular products. This could put a lot of companies out of business.”
Or at the very least, cause long-term reputational and economic damage. A 2014 Harris Poll found that 55% of U.S. adults said that if a brand they usually buy has been recalled, they’d temporarily switch to another brand. But 16% say they’d never buy the recalled brand again and 17% say they’d also avoid all other products and brands made by the same manufacturer.