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Federal Law Should Require ID of Stores That Sold Recalled Food

Armen Hareyan's picture

Food recall and safety

A newly proposed rule to make meat and poultry recalls more effective is a step in the right direction, says an Ohio State University economist. But Neal Hooker believes even more could be done to protect consumers from food-borne illness from tainted meat.

Hooker, an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics, revealed in a 2004 study that only about half of recalled meat and poultry is recovered.

To increase those numbers, Hooker suggests in a recently published follow-up paper that the government should publicize the names and locations of grocery stores where the recalled meat has been sold.

That's exactly what the Food Safety and Inspection Service is suggesting with a proposed new rule, announced March 6. The proposal is online at http://www.regulations.gov (search for documents in the Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS). Comments about the proposal are being accepted through May 8. The FSIS also plans to hold a public meeting on the issue during the comment period.

Currently, recalled meat and poultry products are publicized on an FSIS Web site and through press releases in the states where the meat was distributed. Notifications are sent to public health agencies, wholesalers and retailers. However, retail locations where the recalled products have been sold are not listed for public view.

"Right now, no federal agency has the authority to reveal where recalled meat products have been sold, much less tell retailers they need to take steps to inform consumers about a recall," Hooker said. "I do think this proposed rule is a good idea, but it could have gone further." A big step would have been to outline steps grocery stores must take in order to inform consumers when a recall occurs.

The amount of meat and poultry products recalled in the United States has grown from about 6 million pounds in 1988 to about 36 million pounds in 2003, Hooker said. His recent study, conducted with graduate student Wenjing Shang, was published in the August-November 2005 issue of the Journal of Public Affairs. Hooker and Shang also presented ideas on "Using Consumer Information to Improve Recalls" at the Battelle Policy Day at Ohio State 's John Glenn Institute in February.

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Two time periods are critical in a recall's effectiveness, Hooker said: the number of days after production until a problem is discovered, and the duration of the recall. In their study, Hooker and Shang examined 501 recalls between January 1998 and May 2005. They found that, on average, a recall began 47 days after production and lasted an average of 135 days after that. However, the cases varied widely, with discovery of the problem ranging between 1 and 480 days and the duration of a recall ranging from 6 to 616 days.

"These time periods are much too long, considering that some of these products have a shelf life of only about nine days," Hooker said. "This says to me that maybe retailers need to be more active in recalls. Right now, they're not required to do anything to alert consumers."

"The goal should be simply this: fewer people getting sick," Hooker said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 5,000 people die nationally every year from food-borne illness. Increasing consumers' awareness about recalls of contaminated food products could have significant public health impacts, Hooker said, and grocery stores that go out of their way to warn consumers about potentially harmful products could find customers appreciate the information and become even more loyal customers. However, Hooker said, this theory remains untested and deserves further research.

Hooker is continuing his work on this topic, focusing on smaller, non-chain retailers in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to determine the type of technology they have available to track customer purchases compared with larger grocery chains.

Loyalty Cards Could Help Stores Reach Customers Who Bought Recalled Food

If federal law is changed to require the identification of stores that have sold food that has been recalled, the question becomes how these stores can best notify their customers.

Some retailers voluntarily put fliers up warning consumers who may have purchased a recalled meat or poultry item and encouraging them to return the product if it hasn't already been consumed.

Hooker suggests other steps could be taken. For example, retailers could use information collected from customer loyalty cards to notify consumers who have purchased recalled products. They could do so by e-mail or simply by alerting them the next time customers use their cards. For customers who do not have such cards, retailers could collect information from other means, such as food stamp cards or even credit cards.

"There are problems with any of these approaches," Hooker admits. When consumers sign up for customer loyalty cards, they are usually promised that their information will not be used for any reason other than marketing purposes. Using data from food-stamp card purchases calls to mind "Big Brother" scenarios. Concerns about customer privacy must be dealt with before such measures are taken, he said.

Hooker realizes retailers may be concerned about getting a bad reputation by admitting they sold products that faced a recall. However, he said they should also consider the potential customer relations benefits by doing whatever they can to protect the health of their customers by informing them about those recalls. In the end, he believes, the benefits would outweigh any potential costs retailers would face.