Chances are high that you or someone in your family has gotten sick from something you ate in the last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans get sick each year from foodborne diseases. Of those,128,000 wind up in the hospital and 3,000 die.
While many stores quickly notify customers of recalls one way or another, they’re not required to, and their practices are neither uniform nor always timely. Ultimately, our country needs to improve its food production process to reduce the need for recalls in the first place.
In the meantime, the government and grocers need to do a better job warning consumers in a timely manner of food products that could make them sick.
In a new report, Food for thought: Are your groceries safe?, the Arizona PIRG Education Fund surveyed 50 of the largest grocery and convenience store chains nationwide on their notification practices and talked to experts about what needs to change to improve both communication and public safety.
Among our findings:
Only half of the retailers told us they notify customers by phone, text, or email within one business day.
One-third of the retailers put the
onus on customers to check the store’s website or social media accounts for recall notices.
Although federal law requires more robust notifications -- including in-store signs -- under an 11-year-old law,
the guidelines are neither finalized nor enforced.
Incorporating better use of technology, a tactic the food industry association supports, could help significantly.
The Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s report includes tips for consumers on steps you can take to keep up with food recalls such as stopping by the customer service desk of the grocery stores you shop at and ask how they notify customers of recalls; get the free Foodkeeper app through foodsafety.gov and allow recall notifications to be pushed to your phone; sign up for recall alerts via the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture websites; and if you have a Twitter account, follow the agencies’ Twitter accounts: @FDArecalls and @USDAFoodSafety.
Getting real-time alerts is especially important if there are people with severe allergies, or kids, pregnant women, elderly folks, or people with compromised immune systems in your home.
If you don’t want to sign up for all food recalls, but perhaps just those involving salmonella, E. coli or listeria, or certain undeclared allergens (like peanuts or wheat), then set up Google news alerts with those keywords to be delivered to your email daily or in real time.
Please check out the report for additional tips for consumers; tips on how to read “best by/use by” package labels to understand food expiration dates; and tips on how to save money at the grocery store, despite rising food prices.
Teresa Murray is the Consumer Watchdog for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. The Arizona PIRG Education Fund conducts research and education on issues in the public interest. The report and more information can be found at ArizonaPIRGEdFund.org.