How do consumers respond to food recalls?

Posted by James Ferre on 5th May 2009

Consumers often fail to check their pantries for recalled products but when they find out about a recall they spread the word, according to new research from America.

Rutgers Food Policy Institute (FPI) discovered that many fail to check their homes for recalled food products. Only about 60 per cent of the studied sample reported ever having looked for recalled food in their homes, and only 10 per cent said they had ever found a recalled food product.

Most respondents also said they pay a great deal of attention to food recalls and, when they learn about them, they tell many other people. But 40 per cent 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.

“Despite widespread awareness of recent foodborne illness outbreaks, and a sense that the number of food recalls is increasing, about half of Americans say that food recalls have had no impact on their lives,” said psychologist William K. Hallman, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “Getting consumers to pay attention to news about recalls isn’t the hard part but getting them to take the step of actually looking for recalled food products in their homes is a real challenge.”

Nearly 75 per cent of those surveyed said they would like to receive personalised information about recalls on their receipt at the grocery store, and more than 60 per cent said they also would also like to receive such information through a letter or an e-mail.

Mr Hallman said that personalising communications about food recalls may be the way to overcome the sense that the messages are meant for someone else. 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.

But even when people find recalled food, not all do what they are told. Approximately 12 per cent reported eating a food they thought had been recalled. At the other extreme, some consumers take a “better safe than sorry” attitude. More than 25 per cent reported that they had simply 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.

“Instructions to consumers must be clear and understandable if you want them to act appropriately after a food recall,” Hallman advised.

He cites recent advice to consumers from the food standards body in the US to not eat pistachios, but to hold onto them and not throw them away as confusing to consumers.

“We found that clear, direct messages such as ‘throw the food in the garbage’, or ‘return the food to the store for a refund’, should motivate action. Keeping people in a holding pattern is more likely to result in inaction, and it certainly increases the likelihood that someone might eat the food by accident,” Hallman said.