the U.S.) does not, nor do many companies whose products are recalled.
While Spanish is the second-most-often spoken language in the U.S.,
there are millions of Americans who
speak languages other than English
and Spanish, and who (based on self-reported Census data) speak English
“not at all” or “not well.” Moreover,
there are many Americans who cannot
read English or Spanish, making written notices inaccessible to them.
Getting consumers to act appropriately in response to a food recall only
begins with making them aware that
a problem exists with a product. For
consumers to pay attention and to act,
they must also believe that the products affected are relevant to them. Yet,
in many ways, the greater availability
of food recall information through
traditional media, on the internet,
and through social media has actually
made it more difficult for consumers
to focus on the products that are pertinent to them.
The primary goal of food recall
communications is to broadcast warning information as rapidly and as widely as possible to protect public health.
However, the reality is that the majority of recalls simply aren’t applicable to
most people. Many involve food products that are produced in small quantities or sold in limited areas. Others
involve more widely distributed products but apply only to those packages
bearing specific lot numbers or “best
by” dates. Others are for products
with limited shelf lives that are likely
to have already been consumed or
discarded by the time a recall notice is
issued. In addition, more than half of
the recalls of FDA-regulated products
in 2018 involved undeclared allergens,
which are potentially life threatening
to those who are allergic to them. This
is critical information that needs to be
widely disseminated; however, many
who are unaffected by these allergens
are likely to view the information as
meant for others.
ers, their ability to identify affected products, and their motivation to properly dispose of them, each of which is discussed in turn below.
Increasing the effectiveness of recalls begins with improving consumer awareness.
People cannot take action if they don’t know that they need to do so. Unfortunately,
recall announcements must compete with the other information encountered by
consumers every day.
Our data suggest that consumers are most likely to be aware of recalls that are
covered by the traditional news media. Even if people learn about a recall through
social media, the origin of the news is most often a story that was covered in the
mainstream news. Unfortunately, national
news outlets typically only provide extensive coverage of “newsworthy” recalls. A
review of recent headlines suggests that
these typically involve a foodborne illness
outbreak resulting in a significant number
of illnesses or deaths, the recall of a large
quantity of food or of multiple products,
or of especially popular or well-known
products. Other kinds of food recalls
rarely receive the same kind of coverage,
making it much less likely that consumers
will become aware of them. As a result,
companies have to work much harder to
publicize these smaller, less prominent
recalls, which often involve products sold
within local or regional markets.
Other challenges exist as well. In addition to notifying retailers of a recall and
working with them to remove affected
products from their shelves and warehouses, food manufacturers and distributors
often work with “brick and mortar” stores
to post recall notices at the point of sale.
This has often involved posting written
notices near the shelves that have been
emptied of the affected product and printing recall messages onto customer receipts
or on coupon slips. In fact, some participants in our studies have indicated that they
don’t pay attention to news about recalls because they implicitly trust their grocery
store not to sell recalled food products.
However, consumers increasingly purchase food products online and have them
shipped directly to their homes, bypassing local retailers. These sales often involve
small online vendors or third-party resellers operating through larger e-commerce
sites. Food manufacturers and distributors often have little or no relationship with
these retailers, and as a result, they don’t receive direct notices of a recall. Many of
these small online retailers also lack the personnel, training, and inventory systems
necessary to appropriately identify and withdraw recalled products from sale online. As a result, consumers have reported instances of recalled food products being
shipped to them by online retailers.
Consumer awareness of recalls is also hampered by the fact that consumer advisories, warnings, and recall notices are typically written in English. USDA also routinely translates the recall and public health alert information it posts on its website
into Spanish; however, FDA (which has responsibility for 80% of the food supply in
“Given that food
recalls will remain
a critical means to
health well into the
future, we need
to improve their