Recent statements in national media about so-called consumer recall fatigue spurred discussion in the fresh produce and food safety communities, with leaders suggesting consumer complacency is the more prevalent problem.
In 2011, there were more than 2,300 recalls of consumer products, according to combined statistics from the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. That’s an average of more than six recalls per day involving everything from automotive parts, medical devices and fresh produce.
However, a former USDA undersecretary for food safety, a consumer advocate and the vice president of the Produce Marketing Association don’t believe consumers are overwhelmed.
“If I went out on the street today and asked the first 100 people I saw if they have ‘recall fatigue,’ they’d say ‘What’s that?’” said Richard Raymond, who was USDA undersecretary for food safety from 2005-09.
“Complacency is a more accurate description of what’s going on with consumers.”
A study of American consumer reactions to recalls conducted by Rutgers University in 2009 supports Raymond’s assertion. It showed 40% of those responding do not check their homes for recalled products when recalls are issued. Also, 12% said they had eaten food they knew had been recalled.
PMA vice president Kathy Means said those statistics don’t surprise her, but they do concern her.
“A recall is an indication of the system working,” Means said. “We should not scale back recalls or the commitment of our industry. But the Rutgers study shows everyone has a role in recalls, including consumers.”
Consumer advocate Sarah Klein said she believes the public wants to know about recalls, but the government needs to do a better job of providing information. Klein is an attorney for the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and worked with a USDA panel last year to develop an Ad Council campaign about foodborne illnesses.
“We want the FDA to improve its recall alerts and database so consumers can do more customized searches,” Klein said. “We are always looking at better ways to target the consumers who might actually have the recalled products.”
Klein also said the USDA and FDA need to improve recall-related communication with state agencies. That assessment is supported by many state officials, according to a survey conducted last year by the Association of Food and Drug Officials.
The association surveyed officials from 30 state agencies. Of those, 16 agencies said FDA’s “inability to share distribution information” was an obstacle to food recalls.