Food Safety Recalls: U.S. System Leaves Consumers Vulnerable


May 26, 2022 – When it comes to finding out about food recalls from a local grocery store, it might be worth shopping around.

Some stores, like Eagle Foods and Costco, take decisive action when a food manufacturer or the FDA issues a safety alert. They text or robocall their loyalty card customers so they know they recently purchased a potentially dangerous item.

With the JIF peanut butter recall over possible salmonella contamination announced May 20, for example, these two stores sent out notifications to customers within hours.

In contrast, other grocers like Publix and Aldi require customers to check the company website for recalls. This approach puts the responsibility on each shopper to protect themselves and their loved ones, according to Food for Thought: Are Your Groceries Safe, a or to only Class I recalls – the ones that pose a more serious threat to health – for example. Stores that offer such services should also promote the option to customers, Murray says.

A related idea would be offering customers the option to provide their phone number at checkout, reassuring them they would only be notified when an item on their receipt is later recalled.

Overall, there is no one solution that will work for everyone, Murray says, and she recommends a multi-layer approach to reach as many customers as possible. After all, she says, people die from illness related to food recalls, including some preventable deaths from food eaten even after a recall is announced.

‘Food’ Is the FDA’s First Name

Where is the FDA in all this? There are only two federal requirements regarding food recalls: The manufacturer has to create a news release, and the FDA has to post the recall on its Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts website. The Food Safety and Monitoring Act, signed in 2011, would grant the agency greater power over food recalls, but its provisions have yet to be fully enacted.

There can also be quite a time lag before official food recall notices are posted on the FDA site. A “particularly egregious example” cited in the report is the Dole lettuce recall announced by the FDA and CDC on Dec. 22, 2021, for potential listeria contamination. Murray notes that the CDC investigation traced cases of related illness back to 2014.

More recently, the pandemic for the slow response but also said an error in the FDA mailroom caused an important piece of mail to go missing.

Steps Consumers Can Take

Timed to post the same day as the PIRG report, Murray also posted nine tips for consumers who do not want to wait for grocers or the federal government to act further on recalls.

Tips include:

  • Ask at the customer service desk how they notify customers about recalls.
  • Opt into any notification services they offer, especially if you or a family member has a severe food allergy or high-risk medical condition.
  • Take photos of packaging for food such as onions, potatoes, or apples that you commonly transfer to a bowl or other container at home, in case there is a relevant recall.

“Over the past decade, companies have improved upon the recall response time,” says Jim Dudlicek, a spokesman for the National Grocers Association, a trade association of more than 1,500 independent retail and wholesale grocers.

Communication among the food supply chain players has improved as well, Dudlicek says, “meaning products are pulled from the shelves faster, or never even make it onto the shelves during a recall.”

FMI, the Food Industry Association, which represents large retail grocers, provided comment within the PIRG report but did not respond to a request for more comment.