Americans Suffering from Recall Fatigue Ignore the Warnings

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Government regulators, retailers, manufacturers, and consumer experts are concerned that recall notices on foods and consumer products have become so frequent that the public is suffering from “recall fatigue” – or a sense of information overload that causes people to begin to ignore the warnings, putting health at risk.

Last month alone (June 2010), there were 26 recalls announced by the US Food and Drug Administration and over 40 from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. These included painted character glasses from McDonald’s that were contaminated with cadmium, Kellogg cereals with an off taste and smell to the packaging, and undercooked SpaghettioOs with Meatballs.

Just today, another recall has been announced from the US Department of Agriculture regarding 66,000 pounds of bison meat that is possible contaminated with E.coli.

USA Today first described the syndrome of “recall fatigue” back in 2007 when even retailers were found to ignore a recall of food products by Castleberry Foods. The same year, Hasbro recalled the Easy-Bake Oven because of reports of injuries to children. Yet, over the six months following the recall, 249 more children were injured because consumers ignored – or were not aware – of the recall.

One recent study funded by the USDA found that 12 percent of Americans who knew they had recalled food at home ate it anyway. Consumers are much more likely to return a product that is relatively expensive or if there is an immediate threat to their health or safety. For example, car owners are among the most responsive, returning 73% of recalled autos and 45% of recalled child car seats in 2009.

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"It's a real issue," said Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration, who said even his wife has complained about the difficulty of keeping up with recalls. "That number is steadily going up, and it's difficult for us to get the word out without over saturating consumers."

"The national recall system that's in place now just doesn't work," said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco.
"We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind -- 'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!' -- people literally become immune to the message."

Government regulators feel that most consumers do a good job in getting unsold merchandise off the shelves. “We believe the greatest challenge is getting dangerous products out of the homes,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the CPSC.

The government maintains a website, www.recalls.gov, offering information about recalls in nine different areas, including consumer products, foods and medicines, motor vehicles and environmental products.

Mr. Wilson says that it is not enough, as a Rutgers study from 2009 found that only about 60% of people ever look for recalled food in their homes. Costco offers personalized recall notices based on data stored for all 56 million club members. When a product is recalled, they receive a telephone call within 24 hours if they have purchased the product at Costco. “The federal government ought to require merchants to follow a similar model, provided customer data are used only for safety recalls,” Wilson said.

Until then, consumers can subscribe for e-mail alerts at www.recalls.gov about specific products they use. And on Friday, federal officials plan to roll out a smartphone application so consumers can check recalls as they shop.

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