The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Shopper Attitudes Toward Recalls

Shopper Attitudes Toward Recalls

Shoppers and Trends

April 26, 2009

Only about 60% of Americans report ever having looked for recalled food in their homes, according to a recent study from the Rutgers University Food Policy Institute. The study, which talked to a random sample of adults in all 50 states, was designed to provide insight into consumers’ current responses to food recalls.

While most Americans do view the food recall process as an important method for saving lives and protecting public health, 22% percent believe that most food recalls aren’t serious enough to pay attention to. In fact, one-third of consumers think the government often overreacts to recalls. Forty percent of consumers think the foods they purchase are less likely to be recalled than those purchased by others.

Food Policy Institute Director Dr. William Hallman says people believe that while food recalls are important, they don’t necessarily apply to them. Another concern is that most people don’t think that food recalls happen all that often. The problem, he says, is that if people think that important food recalls only happen rarely, they are less likely to believe in their chances of getting foodborne illness, and less likely to take the needed precautions.

“The only way to tackle misconceptions is to provide better education and more consistent messages,” says Hallman. “Particularly vulnerable are the very young, the very old, and those who are immunocompromised. However, we are all at risk for illness.”

The recent pistachio and peanut butter recalls further highlight the importance of consumer compliance with recall procedures, but motivating consumers to pay attention is no easy task, says Hallman. About half of Americans say that food recalls have no impact on their lives; few (17%) think they have recalled food in their homes. Only ten percent say they have ever found a recalled food product; twelve percent report actually having eaten a recalled food. 

Of the 135 respondents who reported having eaten a recalled food, the majority (57%) reported that they didn’t believe that eating the recalled food would hurt them. An alarming 10% said that they cooked or washed the recalled product, rather than dispose of it, to render it safe to eat.

The CDC estimates that 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths occur annually in the United States due to accidental contamination by foodborne pathogens – numbers that suggest nearly every American has had some experience with foodborne illness. And yet, most Americans tend to underestimate their overall experiences with foodborne illnesses – only 18% of respondents in this study reported that they had ever become sick from eating contaminated food.

Hallman says in order for recalls to be effective they must inspire consumers to take action without unnecessarily frightening them into avoiding safe products. More than 25% of consumers toss food products after hearing about a recall and in doing so, they potentially waste safe, nutritious food. 

“Retailers should advise their consumers to pay attention to recalls and dispose of products as they hear about them, but over-tossing is unnecessary,” says Hallman. “Most foodborne illnesses are the result of mistakes made at home, such a undercooking meat products, and not properly washing hands.”

Interestingly, while nearly 40% of Americans say they would be open to email alerts from government regarding food recalls, only six percent of Americans actually use this available service. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans say they would want to receive some kind of personalized information about recalls, either on their grocery receipt or through email.

Better communication is still needed, Hallman says, to help consumers act appropriately after a food recall. Clear, direct messages, like “throw the food in the garbage” or “return the food to the store,” he says, can be beneficial to the process. Also, retailers have an important role to play in helping consumers break through the consumer “illusion of vulnerability.”

Some retailers have begun to use information from their loyalty card programs to notify their customers when a product they have previously purchased is subject to a recall. Consumers can ask whether their local stores are participating in these programs, and if so, how they can make sure that they get notified in the event of a recall.  

“It is a lot tougher for consumers to continue believing that they aren’t affected by a recall if they get a phone call, a letter, an email, or something printed at the cash-register indicating that something they have purchased may be contaminated,” says Hallman. “For more information, consumers should also be directed, a central, reliable website where people can learn about food recalls.”