Researchers call for direct, personalized recall advice

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Recall election, Consumer protection, Fda

The Rutgers Food Policy Institute (FPI) has called for clearer food recall information after it found that although Americans believe recalls are important, many think they do not apply to them.

Although most respondents to the FPI survey said they paid a great deal of attention to recalls, forty percent said they thought the foods they purchase are less likely to be affected than those bought by others.

Despite general awareness of food recalls and a feeling that their incidence is increasing, about half of respondents said recalls have no impact on their lives and 12 percent said they had eaten foods they thought was part of a recall.

At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent had thrown products away after hearing about a recall without checking whether those products were affected.

Personalized information

The researchers suggest that changing the way in which recall information is communicated may help consumers to personalize risks associated with eating recalled products.

FPI director and lead author of the report William Hallman said: “Our research points out that instructions to consumers must be clear and comprehensible if you want them to act appropriately after a food recall​.”

He said that the FDA’s recent advice in the wake of the pistachio recall confused consumers by asking them to hold onto pistachios and not throw them away.

“We found that clear, direct messages such as ‘throw the food in the garbage’ or ‘return the food to the store for a refund,’ should motivate action. Keeping people in a holding pattern is more likely to result in inaction, and it certainly increases the likelihood that someone might eat the food by accident.”

Executive director of the Western Pistachio Association Richard Matoian, however, told last week that consumers were more confused by the recent peanut product recall, when the FDA initially told consumers not to eat any peanut products before modifying its advice.

Matoian said: “The thing that we saw with peanuts was that consumers were confused, which is why we came up with the website ​[listing safe pistachio products] and we got the FDA to put a link up on their website.”

In terms of receiving personalized information, 40 percent of those surveyed claimed they would sign up to government email alerts about recalls, although only six percent had done so.

Additionally, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said they would be interested in receiving recall information on their grocery store receipts based on past purchases.

‘Significant misconceptions’

The researchers also investigated how much respondents understood about the recall process.

“We asked a range of questions designed to assess the public’s knowledge both about how the recall process works and about the agencies in charge. The results suggest that many Americans hold significant misconceptions,”​ they wrote.

The study found that 80 percent of respondents thought that the government could force a company to withdraw a recalled product, which is currently not the case. In addition, nearly three-quarters said they thought the FDA was responsible for recalls of meat and poultry, while these fall under the USDA’s remit.

The survey results were based on a sample of 1,101 adults from all 50 states interviewed between August 4 and September 24 2008.

Source: New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Food Policy Institute (2009).

Consumer Responses to Food Recalls: 2008 National Survey Report​ (Publication number RR-0109-018)

Authors: W.K. Hallman, C.L. Cuite, N.H. Hooker.

Related topics: Suppliers, Food safety and labeling

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