Rethinking the Future of Food Recalls
By William K. Hallman, Ph.D., and Cara L. Cuite, Ph.D.
Food recalls are an important tool that can be used to protect the public from exposures to potentially unsafe products. Yet, carrying out an effective recall presents obvious challenges. There are the logistical difficulties involved with the accurate identification, efficient retrieval, and appropriate disposal of potentially contaminated food products. There are also substantial legal, regulatory, financial, and reputational issues with which to contend.
However, once products have been sold to the public, the most significant challenge involves getting individual consumers to look for, correctly recognize, and discard or return food products that might make them ill. Convincing individuals to act appropriately in response to a food recall often requires food companies, retailers, government agencies, and consumer groups to interact with consumers in unique and consequential ways that are atypical in their normal course of business. Getting recalled foods out of the hands of consumers requires a different set of strategies than those that put them there in the first place. A recall is not food marketing in reverse.
Persuading consumers to act in response to a food recall is not easy. Ten years ago, we conducted a nationally representative survey of American consumers to assess their awareness and knowledge of food recalls and to understand their attitudes and responses to them. We found that more than 90 percent of Americans viewed recalls as essential to protecting public health and saving lives. More than 80 percent said they paid attention to news reports about recalls, and a similar percentage reported that they told others about food recalls when they heard about one. Yet, while most people believe that food recalls are important, only about 6 in 10 reported that they had ever looked for a recalled food in their homes, and only 1 in 10 said that they had ever found one.
Much has changed in the intervening decade, including more rapid and widespread dissemination of information about recalled foods through the internet and social media. Detailed information about recalls, market withdrawals, consumer advisories, and health and safety alerts is now widely available through foodsafety.gov and recalls.gov, and through the individual U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) websites devoted to these issues. The public can also learn about these notices by following these agencies on social media and having these notices automatically emailed to them. Food companies and some retailers are also using their own web pages to share detailed information about recalled products and what consumers should do if they find them.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 7 in 10 American adults now uses social media to view and share news content, opinions, and other information. Both FDA and USDA share recall information via social media, as do many companies. Food marketers are well aware of the utility of social media, with most major companies actively using it to court customers, to encourage them to follow and share information about the company’s brands, and to influence consumer purchase intentions. They are also cognizant of the rapidity with which social media can significantly damage the reputation of a product, brand, or company when something goes wrong, or is simply rumored to have gone wrong.
Yet, despite the enhanced ability to access information about recalled food products over the last 10 years, consumer responses to food recalls have not kept pace. In our August 2018 survey of American consumers, we found that about 7 in 10 now say they have looked for a recalled food product at some point (up from 6 in 10), while about 2 in 10 report that they believe that they have found a recalled product in their homes (up from 1 in 10). While this represents progress, it is clear that the food industry, government, and consumer groups need to do more to help people respond appropriately to food recalls. So, what can we do?
Ideally, we would eliminate the necessity to recall food products altogether. Food recalls are expensive, disruptive, and are meant to be a public health measure of last resort, not a first line of defense. However, eliminating food recalls in the near term is unlikely. In fact, advances in technology, including whole-genome sequencing, have enabled more rapid and precise characterizations of the pathogens involved in foodborne illness outbreaks, which makes it more likely that outbreaks will be identified and affected foods recalled.
Food companies are also paying greater attention to food safety, instituting tighter controls over the sourcing of their ingredients and manufacturing processes. Many have comprehensive internal testing and quality control systems designed to detect allergens, pathogens, and physical contaminants. Many have also become more aggressive in ordering voluntary recalls and product withdrawals as precautionary measures intended to prevent their customers from coming into contact with potentially adulterated products. They have realized that while a recall may be damaging to a brand or a commodity in the short term, it is far worse to be associated with a foodborne problem that sickens, hospitalizes, or results in customer deaths.
Given that food recalls will remain a critical means to protect consumer health well into the future, we need to improve their efficacy. We can do so by being more strategic in designing recall messages, beginning with an understanding that these are significantly different from other messages that we send to consumers about food. We can also be more effective through a more comprehensive understanding of how consumers react to food recalls and by taking advantage of advances in technology.
Food Recall Communications Are Different
Effective food recalls involve successfully alerting the public about the potential hazards associated with specific food products, ensuring that people are able to recognize which products are involved and which are not, and motivating them to look for, find, and appropriately discard or return the affected products rather than consuming them. The stakes are high, as failure at any point in this process can result in people getting sick, or dying.
Therefore, these messages must be designed to be broad enough to reach everyone who may be affected, including those who already have the food in their homes and those who might purchase a recalled food still in the marketplace. At the same time, these warnings must be specific enough that consumers can recognize when they are personally affected by the recall. They must contain enough details to enable consumers to identify which products have been recalled, allowing consumers to differentiate these from similar products that are unaffected. They must also include specific instructions to consumers about how to properly dispose of or return products that are affected.
Recall warnings must be sufficiently strong to demand consumer attention, motivating people to look for potentially affected products and to take appropriate actions if they find them. They should prompt people to share accurate information about the recall with others, spreading and drawing attention to the news, and should therefore be social media-ready to facilitate this.
At the same time, these alerts must not unnecessarily frighten people or cause them to avoid products that are not part of the recall. In fact, communicating about a food recall requires persuading consumers that only the specific packages of the product they were originally induced to purchase may be unsafe for them to eat. Then, after the underlying cause for the recall has been corrected, those same consumers need to be convinced that the product is safe after it returns to the market.
Understanding Consumer Responses to Recalls
Unfortunately, as our research has shown, even when they achieve the right balance of urgency, specificity, detail, and instruction, simply issuing food recall warnings is not enough to protect public health. Providing information to people is usually necessary, but not sufficient, to motivate them to respond appropriately to a recall.
After more than a dozen years of studying public responses to recalls and advisories, we have found that many consumers do hear about them and that they do pay attention. Some follow the advice given and look for, find, and discard or return products that have been listed as being recalled. Many also share this information with others via social media, drawing additional public attention to the recall. Some also visit the websites of the companies involved in the recall, seeking additional information, which they may also share.
Yet, some consumers remain unaware of recalls that affect them because they never see the warning information, while others are aware of the recall but ignore it because they don’t recognize the products being recalled or believe that they own them. Some hear about the recall, and intend to look for the affected products, but never do so, or they look for the products but cannot identify them.
When they involve a single product, or a small but complete list of products that quickly becomes available and does not change, recalls can be relatively straightforward. In contrast, expanding recalls, especially those which ultimately impact dozens or hundreds of products, are significantly more complicated. In these cases, some consumers learn of the initial recall notice and look for affected products but are unaware of the subsequent notices or ignore them, believing that they have already taken action.
Our research has also shown that some consumers respond to recalls in ways that are particularly imprudent. Some who are fully aware of a recall simply decide to disregard it, consuming the recalled product despite being warned not to do so. Why? Some do it because they believe that the warning is “overblown.” Some are certain that they can make a potentially contaminated product safe to eat by cooking or washing it, while others believe they are immune to foodborne illnesses. Finally, after discovering that they have already partially consumed a recalled product, some people decide that since they didn’t get sick, it is safe to eat whatever remains.
At the other extreme, some consumers are hypercautious. Some adopt a “better safe than sorry” strategy, discarding any product resembling those that have been recalled. This often includes discarding all packages of the products named in the recall, regardless of whether they match the date or lot codes subject to recall. Some avoid or discard products that are not part of a recall but were manufactured by the same company. Others avoid similar products made by other companies that were not recalled. Some report avoiding products or commodities that have been the subject of a recall for months or even years after an outbreak of foodborne illness has ended.
Doing a better job at motivating consumers to act appropriately requires increasing consumer awareness of recalls, increasing their relevance to individual consumers, 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 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.
This means that the large majority of food recall notices are not relevant to most of the people who hear about them. Repeated exposure to irrelevant information can be fatiguing and can result in people ignoring recall information altogether. It can also result in a sense that food recalls are something that other people have to worry about. In fact, our research has shown that more than a third of Americans think that, compared with other people like them, they are personally less likely to have purchased a food that had been recalled.
This “optimistic bias” is reinforced by personal experience. Most people who report having looked for a recalled food product say they’ve never found one. This view that recalls apply to others and not to themselves may also be reinforced by the vague language in the press releases that accompany announcements of product recalls. These typically call on unidentified “consumers who may have purchased these products,” urging them to return “those products” to an ambiguous “place of purchase” or to discard them.
Recent efforts by USDA and FDA to publicize the names and locations of retailers (or consignees) known to have received recalled products may reduce the ambiguity of where these products have been sold, helping consumers decide whether a recall is relevant to them. However, the ability of food manufacturers and distributors to quickly and precisely identify the consignees of their products remains a significant challenge.
One way to increase the awareness and relevance of recalls is to provide personalized recall messages to consumers who are known to have purchased potentially affected products. Some retailers already provide this service to their customers, using email, phone, and text messages to alert people when something they have previously purchased is subject to a recall. Although there are costs to the retailers who do this, our research indicates that most consumers value this service and that it may increase customer trust and loyalty to those retailers.
Providing this kind of targeted, personalized recall information obviously requires that retailers be able to accurately track and connect consumers with their purchases. Many do this through information provided by consumers when they register for and use voluntary “loyalty card” programs or through membership cards required by some retailers. However, the idea that retailers are keeping track of their purchases (and quite likely sharing this information with other companies) has raised privacy concerns among consumers who would prefer that some, or all, of their purchases remain anonymous. In addition, consumers don’t always use their loyalty cards or keep the contact information they supply to retailers up to date. Some purposely provide false information, believing that it will help protect their privacy or prevent unwanted solicitations from marketers. This has led some retailers to be concerned about potential liability issues that might arise because of their inability to successfully contact every customer known to have purchased a recalled product. Some also worry that customers will come to rely on personal notifications and will ignore other sources of information about recalls. In addition, some consumers have come to expect that any retailer who has their contact information will alert them when they have purchased a recalled product.
For consumers to take the time to look for recalled products in their homes, they also have to be convinced that the consequences of consuming the product are serious enough to demand action on their part. However, our studies (and those of others) have found that most Americans have a tenuous grasp of the causes and consequences of foodborne illness. We have found that people generally underestimate the incidence of foodborne illness and are unable to identify particularly vulnerable groups. Most Americans also don’t recognize the symptoms of foodborne illness, and most don’t believe that they have personally experienced it.
Two of our national surveys included questions about eating recalled food products. In both surveys, about 1 in 10 Americans reported that they had eaten a food they thought had been recalled, and nearly all reported having done so without adverse consequence. Unfortunately, disregarding warnings and eating a recalled product without perceived ill effects can be self-reinforcing and may lead to an underestimation of the consequences of consuming recalled products in the future.
The notices of recalls, market withdrawals, safety, and public health alerts posted by both FDA and USDA on their websites do include information about the common 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 direction: 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 particular 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 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 SmartLabel™ 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 next step.
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.
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.