Many consumers ignore food-product recalls: study

by Bryan Salvage
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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Many Americans do not check their homes for recalled food products, according to a Rutgers’ Food Policy Institute study released on April 14. Approximately 60% of the studied sample reported ever having looked for recalled food in their homes, and only 10% said they had ever found a recalled food product.

The study was based on a survey of 1,101 Americans interviewed by telephone from Aug. 4 to Sept. 24, 2008.

Although most respondents said they pay a lot of attention to food recalls and when they learn about them tell many other people, 40% of these consumers think the foods they purchase are less likely to be recalled than those purchased by others — appearing to believe that food recalls just don’t apply to them.

Approximately half of Americans say that food recalls have had no impact on their lives, despite widespread awareness of recent foodborne-illness outbreaks and a sense that the number of food recalls is increasing, said William K. Hallman, psychologist and professor of human ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and lead author of the study report.

"Getting consumers to pay attention to news about recalls isn’t the hard part. It’s getting them to take the step of actually looking for recalled food products in their homes," said Mr. Hallman, who is also the director of F.P.I.

Rutgers’ researchers offered suggestions on how to improve food recall communications. Approximately 75% of those surveyed said they would like to receive personalized information about recalls on their receipt at the grocery store, and more than 60% said they also would also like to receive such information through a letter or an e-mail.

Personalizing communications about food recalls may be the way to overcome the sense that the messages are meant for someone else, Mr. Hallman said. Providing consumers with recall information about specific products they have purchased makes it harder for them to ignore the advice to look for the recalled items.

However, even when people find recalled food, not all do what they are told. Approximately 12% reported eating a food they thought had been recalled. On the other hand, more than 25% reported that they had discarded food products after hearing about a recall, potentially wasting safe, nutritious food. Many consumers also avoid purchasing products not included in the recall but which are similar or are from the same manufacturer.

 "Our research also points out that instructions to consumers must be clear and comprehensible if you want them to act appropriately after a food recall," Mr. Hallman said.

Authors of the study also include Cara L. Cuite, a researcher at F.P.I., and Neal H. Hooker, a researcher at the Ohio State University. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Grocery Manufacturers Association funded the study.

The study can be downloaded at www.foodpolicy.rutgers.edu.

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