A new study based on consumer surveys by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University reveals that U.S. consumers understand very little about food recalls – indeed, they understand very little about why one government agency is involved in recalls of meat and poultry products and why another agency covers recalls for other foods. Moreover, just 60 percent of American consumers look for recalled foods in their homes after an announcement and a mere 22 percent pay serious attention to recall notices, the study found. One-third believe the government overreacts to food recalls.

Dr. William Hallman, director of FPI, told MEATPOULTRY.com the study "means two things. One, it shows that lots of consumers do not take food recalls seriously at all. And two, it shows that some consumers takes recalls very seriously."

He added: "One of the things that’s not really been picked up by media coverage so far of the study is this: when we asked people what’s the food product most often subject to recall, meat and poultry as a category came out number one."

Hallman said the survey also found that most consumers think all food recalls are mandatory when in fact they’re voluntary, and that consumers typically underestimate the number of food recalls that occur. That’s understandable, he said, because the media tends to report only the more spectacular recalls – this year’s peanut-product recall and last year’s record-setting beef recall as a result of the Hallmark-Westland animal-handling scandal, for example.

Consumers in general don’t pay closer attention to food recalls, he said, in part because many recalls are for foods that individual consumers don’t buy regularly and so are easy to ignore. Also, consumers tend to think in terms of "whole, self-contained products," according to Dr. Hallman, "such as a can of soup or a package of lettuce. Something like the peanut recall, which involved hundreds of different products, or when ground beef that’s used in many different products and has been distributed all over the place is recalled, that’s more difficult to grasp." Finally, there’s also what Hallman, who is a psychologist, calls the "optimism bias." "The idea that bad things happen to other people is fairly deeply ingrained in the public," he said. The study found that 40 percent of shoppers believe the foods they purchase are less likely to be subject to a recall than foods purchased by other consumers. Half of Americans say food recalls have no impact on their lives, the study found.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne contamination is responsible for 76 million sicknesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths every year in the U.S. alone, yet the Food Policy Institute study found that just 18 percent of respondents say that had ever become sick from food. Just as surprisingly, 10 percent of surveyed consumers said that when they find food subject to a recall in their kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, they served it anyway, believing that washing and/or cooking the product made it safe to eat.

"I think there are some clear lessons in all this," Dr. Hallman told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Clearly, people don’t know how recalls work. But we found that people would like more personalized information -- they’re really open to phone calls or emails from retailers. Some stores are already doing this – Costco and Wegman’s -- using loyalty-card information." He said other retailers, however, worry about liability and privacy issues when it comes to mining loyalty-card data, even for food-safety reasons.

"We spend an awful lot of money and time figuring out how to sell products to consumers," he said, "and very little money and time on how to get them back. In fact, our study is one of the very first on consumer attitudes about recalls. And from a policy point of view, there’s some critical information still missing. For example, we still receive no official advice on how long to wait before buying a product again that had been recalled. For consumers that’s the critical issue, yet they hear nothing from the government and often not the food companies either."

Hallman added that what personally worries him is that there are still many implementation issues with recalls. "We need better traceback in recalls, especially with ingredients that are used in a lot of products. But even so, we’re just talking about food-safety recalls. What about purposeful contamination? We don’t have the systems in place to deal effectively with that at all," he commented.