Grocery stores and supermarkets should do better of notifying customers about foods that have been recalled from their store shelves, a new study finds.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group queried 26 of the largest U.S. grocers – including Target, Kroger, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Food Lion, Walmart and Whole Foods – in late August 2019 about their practices for notifying consumers about food recalls. Most stores declined to respond to the survey, the group says in its “Food Recall Failure” report, out Wednesday.
A few stores answered “a handful” of the survey questions about how they handle recalls including in-store and direct customer notifications. So researchers set out to check grocers’ websites for store policies and ranked each chain on what they found.
The findings: A vast majority of stores – 84% – failed to “adequately inform the public about recall notification efforts” or how to sign up for notifications from a store, or where to find in-store postings about recalls, the researchers found.
The only chains to get passing grades: Harris Teeter, Kroger, Smith’s and Target. Other stores included in the report: Aldi, HyVee, Publix, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Winn Dixie.
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“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,” wrote the report’s authors Dylan Robb and Adam Garber.
More than half of stores – 58% – have email or phone notification programs to notify shoppers about recalls, the researchers found. But only eight of the 15 stores that had such programs clearly informed customers about how the system works, what information is included in warnings and how to participate.
No store provided information online about whether recall notices are posted at customer service desks, checkout counters, or on store shelves, the researchers say.
Grocers may pull recalled products from the shelf, but shoppers who have already purchased them and have the products in their refrigerator or freezer are “often left unaware because the recall system requires either proactive action to find alerts or hearing about a recall through media coverage,” the report says. “This can leave contaminated food in pantries, refrigerators and freezers for days or months after a recall.”
And the need to know is growing. Between 2013-2019, the most hazardous meat and poultry recalls increased 85%, the researchers noted and chronicled last month in a separate report. At the same time, recalls about produce and processed food have decreased by 8.4%, they say.
Recent major recalls across the U.S. include a three-month E. coli outbreak involving California romaine lettuce that sickened 167 people in 27 states and Tyson Foods’ recall of 12 million pounds of frozen chicken strips for possible metal contamination.
About 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. About 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses.
Grocers and retailers have the means to inform shoppers about recalls “through loyalty programs and purchase histories,” the researchers say.
Alerting shoppers to purchases that have been recalled “could help inoculate the grocery store from consumer outrage,” they say. “Until customers can easily find information on recall notification programs, many people will remain in the dark, putting their health at risk.”
Stores should be required to post signs about Class 1 recalls – eating which could lead to serious health problems or death – at cash registers and on store shelves for at least two weeks and at least one month for frozen foods, the report says. Stores should also make it easy to learn how to be notified about recalls on the retailer’s website or upon request from customers.
Shoppers can be proactive and sign up for recall alerts from the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and follow the agencies’ Twitter accounts: @FDArecalls and @USDAFoodSafety.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.