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Complacency, Not Fatigue, The Only Real Recall Danger

Americans handle a lot without fatigue ever becoming a issue. Consider just a few examples:

– We pick our way through an estimated 50,000 items each time we do the grocery shopping.

– We keep track of who’s who among the 150,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild.

– We know enough about the 13,458 pages of the federal tax code to get us by under penalty of law.

– We use our ears to decide what we like among 50 music albums released weekly–2,500 hundred a year and ten times as many singles.

But every so often, somebody suggests the existence of something called “recall fatigue,” the notion that Americans cannot sort out the recalls made by businesses regulated by the federal government, including by the food industry. The fear is that due to volume, consumers might miss an important recall notice or they might just ignore a notice they needed to follow.

The latest to report “Recall Fatigue Prompts Concern” is USA Today with a story that was widely published in local Gannet newspapers around the country.

It quotes Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls at Stericycle Expert Recall, as saying: “We’re experiencing recall fatigue in my mind at the consumer level and also perhaps at the business level, and we have to worry about that.”  It suggests government regulators share that concern.

The Indianapolis-based Stericycle has provided Food Safety News with data on food recalls for the last couple of quarters. We quote Rozembajgier last February as saying the fourth quarter spike in food recalls could be causing that “recall fatigue.”

But does “recall fatigue” exist?  If so, with who?

In 2011’s last three months, the 176 food recalls by 150 companies were enough to bring on that “recall fatigue.”  In the first quarter of 2012, however, the number of food recalls dropped by 19 percent, apparently curing the fatigue problem.

The broader recall fatigue problem we supposedly have now concerns all recalled products.  Last year, U.S, manufacturers recalled 2,365 products of all sorts from birth control pills to high chairs.

And while that might be a higher number than U.S. manufacturers and retailers might like, there is really no evidence that any regulator is losing any sleep over it.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told USA Today: “People have a need to know and have a right to know if there is a problem with a particular problem.”

The fact is that government and technology makes it easy for the public to sort through consumer recall notices, quickly eliminating those that don’t impact them. And recall notices have become increasingly specific, making it possible for someone not involved to just forget about it.

Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA’s former under secretary for food safety says “recall fatigue” never entered into the conversation when he was in government.  Getting more precise information into the hands of consumers did concern him.

“I do know that reading that 500,000 pounds of ground beef as recalled in Nebraska did nothing to protect my health from something already in my kitchen,” Raymond says.  “That is why I changed USDA’s recalls to say 500,000 pounds of ground beef is being recalled in Nebraska and (as an example, not the real deal) was sold at Safeway stores in Lincoln and Omaha.”

Raymond also brought about naming retail stores involved in meat and poultry recalls, an action that gets front page and local evening news coverage for recalls that previously might have gone unnoticed.  He also pushed for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to always be in contact with local and state health officers about recalls, but that’s been less effective in improving local media coverage.

Raymond says it not the total number of recalls across all categories that should be a concern, but the number that affect the individual.  He says if someone isn’t keeping up with those, it is probably more of a matter of complacency that fatigue.

He also suggests we all should be shopping at stores that call us when a product we purchased there is recalled or at automotive dealerships that let us know when a bolt needs to be replaced before we crash.

The federal government is involved in recalls involving consumer products, cars and trucks, boats, food, medicine, cosmetics, and environmental products. It now operates http://recalls.gov/  as a single unified website.

USDA is now offering consumers the opportunity to sign up by state for a Twitter feed that will make recall notices instantaneous. People are increasingly using Social Media to target themselves with only what they need to know, and to filter out that which they don’t.

Anyone not suffering from food allergies, for example, could ignore about 40 percent of all food recalls during the past few months.  On the other hand, if you or a child does have food allergies, you could set up an alert for recall notices due to allergens.

Anyone not taking prescription drugs or having children could ignore the great bulk of government recall notices.

In addition to USDA, most consumer product recalls involve the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Products Safety Commission. Also involved are the Coast Guard, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency.

On the flip side, it is possible that product fatigue has also on occasion brought about a recall.

© Food Safety News
  • John

    I was signed up for those recall alerts, but I stopped because they were worthless. I would get the alerts only intermittently, sometimes a week or more after the recall was issued. This is not a surprise, considering the inefficiency and waste of the government.