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Supermarket shopper examines product from shelf Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus
The only chains to receive passing grades in U.S. PIRG’s scorecard on food recall notification to consumers were Target and The Kroger Co.’s Kroger, Harris Teeter and Smith’s supermarkets.

FMI counters U.S. PIRG report chiding supermarkets on food recalls

Watchdog gives 22 of 26 grocery chains an ‘F’ grade in notifying customers

FMI-The Food Industry Association spoke up for supermarkets’ food recall efforts after a U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) study gave most of the nation’s biggest grocery retailers a failing grade in communicating recalls to consumers.

Released yesterday, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund report, titled “Food Recall Failure: Will your Supermarket Warn You About Hazardous Food?”, said an investigation revealed that 22 of 26 large U.S. grocery chains (84%) don’t adequately make food recall information available to the public. That includes informing customers about recall notifications, how to sign up for direct notifications and where to find in-store postings on recalled items.

The only chains to receive passing grades in U.S. PIRG’s scorecard were Target and The Kroger Co.’s Kroger, Harris Teeter and Smith’s supermarkets, which earned a ‘C’ grade.

Given an ‘F’ on food recall communication were Albertsons, Aldi, Bi-Lo, Food Lion, Giant Eagle, H-E-B, Hannaford, Harveys, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Price Rite Marketplace, Publix, Safeway, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, The Fresh Grocer, Trader Joe’s, Vons, Walmart, Wegmans, Whole Foods Market and Winn-Dixie.

U.S. PIRG said its researchers were unable to find a single store that provided information online about whether recall notices are posted at customer-service desks or checkout counters or on store shelves. Of the grocers examined, 58% reported having a program to directly notify consumers about food recalls via email or telephone. Yet the analysis found that just eight of those 15 retailers made it clear how customers could participate, how the system works or what information the warnings include.

“Supermarkets should be our best recall notification system, but instead we found that shoppers must go on a nearly impossible scavenger hunt to learn if they’ve purchased contaminated food,” U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog Adam Garber said in a statement. “Stores already use modern technology to track customers, place products and target us with ads. There’s no reason why they can’t also keep us healthy.”

FMI-The Food Industry Association-food recall systemAccording to FMI, the food recall notification process in place with retailers and suppliers provides rapid communication to grocery shoppers. (Image courtesy of FMI)

FMI, however, disputed U.S. PIRG’s findings and noted that grocers — and the food industry overall — have effective processes in place to get the word out to consumers on recalled food products.

"Will your supermarket warn you about hazardous food? Absolutely. The food supply chain works within the regulatory framework and acts quickly to remove recalled product from shelves and notify shoppers. This is the most fundamental service grocers provide to maintain the trust of their customers,” stated Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president of food safety at FMI.

"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,” she explained. “Importantly, we believe recalls are the final step of a food safety management program to effectively and efficiently remove potentially harmful products from commerce.”

Last week, in comments to the Food and Drug Administration regarding regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FMI addressed how food retailers and their supply-chain partners respond to recalls. Thesmar pointed out that shopper feedback largely determines how recall information is communicated.

“According to FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2019, digital communications methods in the form of email and text messages lead the way in how consumers prefer to hear about food recalls,” she said. “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.”

U.S. PIRG’s report included recommendations for grocery stores, policymakers and consumers to improve communication of food recalls. Among the suggestions, retailers are urged to post food recall notifications in an easy-to-find spot on their websites; put up signs for Class 1 and Class 2 recalls at checkout and on shelves where the products would normally appear (at least two weeks for perishable items and one month for frozen foods); and leverage their loyalty programs and transaction data to directly alert customers within 48 hours of a product’s recall.

U.S. PIRG called on the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require those recommendations for retailers, while consumers were urged to sign up for recall alerts and contact their local grocer about how to find recall information.

Citing a “lack of transparency,” the watchdog group acknowledged that some of the retailers examined may “have stronger policies than our researchers were able to find” because most declined to answer its survey and those that did gave few responses.

“Every store should have a robust notification program, but right now we're largely in the dark about what happens because notifications are difficult to find,” according to U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog Associate Dylan Robb. “They might not be responsible for the recall, but they can make a difference. We look forward to seeing improved transparency about recall notification efforts and improved programs.”

In the comments submitted to the FDA, FMI said the food industry has created Rapid Recall Express, a downloadable form to standardize recall notifications from suppliers to retailers and wholesalers.

“We will continue to participate in the comments process with government agencies,” Thesmar added, “and our industry remains committed to communicating relevant recall information to customers wherever and however they shop.”

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