Have We Reached Recall Fatigue?

Consumer advocates worry that Americans are overloaded with recall messages.

recalled salad
Are you tuned in to all of the recalls happening around you? (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

In the last two months, the FDA issued recalls for items that included salmonella-laced yellowfin tuna strips; organic cacao nibs that might have been contaminated with E. coli; metal fragments that found their way into some boxed pasta mix products. Eaters with serious food allergies have added worries with a list of products pulled from the shelves because of errors like undeclared eggs or milk, or cross contamination with nuts.

Simply looking at the food category alone, the FDA has issued 41 recalls since late April. Broaden the view to include pharmaceuticals, medical devices, consumer products and more, and U.S. consumers were on the receiving end of 2,363 recalls last year. That’s 6.5 recalls each day, according to a recent story in USA Today—a 14 percent jump since 2010.

Some experts say the volume is resulting in “recall fatigue” among consumers, and they’re worried.

“We have this growing concern for safety, but with there being so many recalls going on (is the public) paying attention to them and responding to them in a manner that is necessary for the recalls to be handled effectively,” Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls for Stericycle ExpertRecall, told USA Today.

The increase in recalls is partly related to better oversight and testing of products. Social media has played a role as well, with consumers reaching out to companies through Twitter and Facebook.

Retailers like Costco and Wegman’s grocery store chain have recall protocols in place to help get the information to their customers, including posting recall information on their websites, and emailing customers they can track through store cards, but even then, notices can be overlooked. Recall announcements can come from many sources, federal, state or local, and food products often carry many labels. Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food-safety cases tells TakePart about an E. coli case he worked on in 2002.

“A cluster of 40 people got sick in July. In September or October, I got a call from another person who had E. coli that said they were part of that outbreak.”

The meat had been placed in the freezer and wasn’t consumed until later.

“I asked if they had heard about the recall, and they said yes, but that they understood the recall was for ConAgra, and their meat was from Safeway,” says Marler. “It was the same meat.”

So what’s a consumer to do? It’s important to be able to filter out what’s high risk and what’s lower risk. While a nut contamination may not harm you, for another consumer, it’s truly life threatening. Marler, who also owns Food Safety News, says his website is a good source of food recall information, and also recommends eFoodAlert and Kansas State University’s BarfBlog.

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