Your grocery store may not be doing enough to notify you about potentially dangerous food recalls

Most of the country’s biggest grocery stores fail to arm the public with enough information about food recalls, argues a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.

U.S. PIRG evaluated 26 of the country’s largest supermarket chains on store policies, in-store customer notification, and direct customer notification regarding food recalls. Most stores wouldn’t answer the group’s survey questions, and those that answered didn’t provide complete responses — so PIRG researchers dove into publicly available information on the stores’ recall policies.

“Consumers have a right to know about food recalls to protect their health from dangerous pathogens, chunks of metal, and unlabeled allergens,” wrote authors Dylan Robb and Adam Garber.

The only four stores that passed the PIRG’s assessment of food-recall notification transparency were Target TGT, -1.39% (71.1%), Kroger (73.3%), Smith’s (73.3%) and Harris Teeter (75.6%), the latter three of which are subsidiaries of the Kroger Co. KR, -1.40% 

Target notifies customers about recalls in several ways, “including posting recalls on our website and Target Facebook page, sending emails to guests who purchased recalled items with their Target RedCard or on, and updating the iPads at our guest services in-store kiosks with recall information,” said spokeswoman Danielle Schumann. She added that food safety was “critically important” to the company.

The Kroger Co. did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the PIRG report.

Big names among the worst scorers, meanwhile, included Whole Foods AMZN, -0.70%  (26.7%), Aldi (28.9%), Trader Joe’s (31.1%) and Walmart WMT, +0.38%  (35.6%). Those companies did not return MarketWatch requests for comment.

Some 84% of grocery chains didn’t give any public description of the process by which they notify customers of recalls, PIRG found. And while 58% of the supermarket chains had a way of notifying consumers directly through phone or email, the watchdog group couldn’t find information on how shoppers participate, when the program gets activated and what information the notifications contain for nearly half of those stores. None of the stores offered online information on where to find in-store recall notices, the group found.

“Instead of sending shoppers on a scavenger hunt for such notifications, or wonder if there are any recalls, stores should publicly state where such recall notifications are posted and what information is provided,” the report said.

Food recalls can occur for reasons including the discovery of bacteria or parasites, discovery of foreign objects like metal or glass, or discovery of a major allergen not disclosed on the label, according to the Health and Human Services Department. About 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate, rendering 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 dead.

See also: This may hard to swallow: Tyson will use X-ray metal detectors to screen its chicken for ‘metal fragments’

“Grocery stores are in a unique position to keep shoppers safe by effectively informing shoppers about food recalled due to a variety of hazards, filling gaps in the nation’s recall system,” the PIRG authors wrote. “Through loyalty programs and purchase histories, stores have unique information about consumers that should allow them to provide targeted alerts to customers about recalled products.”

With that said, 45% of respondents to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey indicated that a government agency would be their chief information source in the event of a recall, with older people most likely to express that preference. The shares of consumers who said their top information sources were retailers such as supermarkets, consumer-advocacy groups, health-care professionals, and food companies or manufacturers all sat below 10%.

To protect themselves, consumers should sign up for the FDA’s and USDA’s recall alerts, the PIRG said, and follow the government agencies on social media for updates. They can also ask their grocery store’s customer service department about how they can receive food-recall notifications, as well as where the store posts physical recall notices.

The Food and Drug Administration provides safety-alert and recall information on food and beverages; dietary supplements and infant formula. The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which keeps track of recall cases involving regulated meat and poultry products, also offers recall and alert information.

Hilary Thesmar, the chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president of food safety for the Food Industry Association, a trade group representing the retail grocery industry, told MarketWatch in a statement that “the greater food industry is effective at recall communications, particularly grocers at the end of the supply chain due to the number of recalls they manage with varying products and volume.”

How food retailers communicate recall information is largely based on shopper feedback, Thesmar added, pointing to a 2019 consumer-trend report from her organization that found digital communications such as email and text message topped the ways in which consumers preferred to learn about food recalls.

“However, we recognize that communication preferences vary generationally and regionally; therefore, retailers utilize multiple methods of communication depending on the circumstances to communicate recalls to their customer,” she said. “We will continue to participate in the comments process with government agencies, and our industry remains committed to communicating relevant recall information to customers wherever — and however — they shop.”

A spokeswoman for the National Grocers Association, a trade group that represents independent retail and wholesale grocers, told MarketWatch that “independent grocers have a longstanding commitment to ensuring a secure food supply chain.”

“Over the past decade companies have improved upon the recall response time, as has the communication between the various actors in the supply chain, meaning products are pulled from the shelves faster, or in many instances the product is stopped in the supply chain and never even makes it onto the shelves,” she said. “Retailers remain hyper focused on food safety and continue to employ standards and technology to respond to recalls in the most effective and efficient manner.”

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