connect consumers to discounts,
marketing information, social media
sites, and other web-based content.
Some companies have incorporated
QR codes into their blockchain traceability efforts, enabling consumers to
track products from “seed to plate.”
Companies participating in the Smart-Label™ Transparency Initiative are also
using QR codes to connect consumers
to product nutrition facts, ingredient, allergen, and other information.
Consumers can scan a QR code on
a product and be taken directly to its
relevant webpage at Smartlabel.org.
Connecting QR codes to accessible
recall information should be a logical
Recognizing that a recall is not food
marketing in reverse is a first step to
making recall communications more
effective. Designing communications
that increase awareness and relevance
while conveying consequences and
providing enough information for
consumers to identify the affected
products can increase the likelihood
that consumers respond appropriately.
Technology has changed how consumers become aware of recalls and how
they identify what is relevant. We now
have additional technology that can be
harnessed to help consumers identify
whether their food has been recalled. It
may be time to use it. n
Scan the QR code or click on the link for free
downloads of Rutgers’s research on food recalls.
William K. Hallman, Ph.D., is a professor and
Chair of the Department of Human Ecology and is a
member of the graduate faculty of the Department
of Nutritional Sciences and of the Bloustein School
of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State
University of New Jersey.
Cara L. Cuite, Ph.D., is an Assistant Extension
Specialist in the Department of Human Ecology and
a member of the graduate faculties of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, the Graduate School of
Education, and the Bloustein School of Planning and
Public Policy at Rutgers.
mon symptoms and consequences of the illness that may be caused by a pathogen
associated with a product. The consistent inclusion of this information in notices,
press releases, and other communications can help educate consumers about these
pathogens and the consequences of foodborne illnesses, and can reinforce the need
to take warning messages about them seriously.
Unfortunately, many of these notices undermine their own messages by including statements that “No illnesses have been reported to date.” While this may be
true, it does not preclude illnesses being reported in the future and may unintentionally communicate the idea that despite being recalled, the product is most likely
harmless. Similarly, informing consumers that a products is being recalled “out of an
abundance of caution” may send the message that there is little likelihood that there
are serious problems with the product.
Once consumers become aware of a food recall and are convinced of its personal
relevance and that the consequences are worth taking action to avoid, they must
also be able to identify the affected products. Both FDA and USDA recall announcements include relevant details such as container sizes, UPC codes, lot/batch
numbers, use/best/sell by dates, as well as pictures of the products being recalled.
However, product labels are primarily designed to help sell foods, not to facilitate
their recall, and the lot numbers, production codes, and dates on products are often
printed in nonobvious places and in difficult-to-read typefaces and sizes.
The fundamental problem with food recalls is that they require individual consumers to recognize that they own a recalled product with a food safety problem
serious enough to warrant their attention and action. However, the current process
is both inefficient and susceptible to failure. It ultimately relies on the right information somehow reaching the right consumers at the right time, who are then able to
use that information to identify the right products.
In the current system, information is also designed to flow primarily in one di-
rection: from the company issuing the recall to the consumer. Companies declare
to consumers, “This product may be unsafe, you may have it in your home, here is
how to identify it, go look for it right now, and throw it out if you find it.”
Unfortunately, the system is not well set up for consumers to ask “Has this par-
ticular product been recalled?” To answer the question, it is possible to conduct a
keyword search of recall notices through foodsafety.gov and USDA and FDA web
pages, although UPC codes can’t be used as search terms.
If the keyword search results in a positive match, it is necessary to click on each
individual recall notice to locate the detailed lot, date, or other information necessary to identify whether a specific package of the product has been recalled. As a
result, answering the question “Has this been recalled?” for a single product is cumbersome and time-consuming. Screening an entire cabinet full of products is impractical. Evaluating all of the foods donated to a community food pantry is impossible.
What is needed is the ability to directly connect UPC codes or QR (Quick Response) codes to recall information. According to the Pew Research Center, more
than three-quarters of Americans now have smartphones, including more than 90
percent of those ages 18–49. Existing smartphone applications can scan product
UPC codes and automatically search for price information. UPC information is also
routinely supplied to FDA and USDA as part of recall notices and is used by manufacturers to help retailers remove recalled food products from their shelves. Thus, it
should be possible to maintain a consumer-searchable database of the UPC codes of
recalled food products that could be accessed through a smartphone app.
Food companies are also increasingly using scannable QR codes to directly