The FDA has an opportunity now to update its recall disclosure policy to provide consumers critical information they need and want to protect themselves during an outbreak. The agency can, and should, begin routinely identifying which retailers and individual store locations sold recalled food. This information will motivate consumers who have shopped in these stores to check their homes for recalled food and discard the food before anyone becomes ill.

That is the message that consumer groups, members of Congress, and others have been delivering to the FDA. Just last week, food safety lawyer Bill Marler wrote in his blog that “the time has come for the FDA to reassess what are considered ‘trade secrets’ or ‘confidential’ so that consumers can know which retailers have sold recalled foods.” He pointed out that the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has been routinely doing this for the past decade, “and the sky did not fall.”

FDA commissioner recognizes value of giving consumers more information
Six months ago, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stated publicly that he wants to do more to make sure that consumers have the information they need to avoid exposure to products that are the subject of recalls. He affirmed that by disclosing information about stores and other locations that may have sold or distributed recalled food, “consumers would have an easier time knowing if they might have, or have been, exposed to a recalled product that could cause potential risks if it were consumed.”

And just last month, the FDA released a list of store locations and retail chains in a recall of pre-cut melons linked to a multistate Salmonella outbreak. In this specific case, the agency determined that providing this information could be made public on the basis that it was necessary “to effectuate a recall.”

FDA is expected to update its policy soon, and those favoring greater transparency are cautiously optimistic. While the agency is required to withhold “confidential commercial information,” it can disclose the information if it determines it is “necessary to effectuate a recall.”

Consumers need to know which retailers sold recalled foods
A fundamental understanding of risk communications principles and literature show that the more “real” and “close to home” a risk appears to be, the more likely consumers will focus on it and take appropriate action. The “appropriate action” of checking for and discarding (or returning) recalled food will improve the effectiveness of recalls and save lives.   

In 2009, Dr. William Hallman of Rutgers Food Policy Institute, and a former chair of FDA’s Risk Communications Advisory Committee, wrote in a report entitled “Food Recalls and the American Public: Improving Communications:”

“Simply telling people about a food recall is often not enough to motivate them to look for and discard recalled products. Instead, getting people to take action requires that they are aware of the recall, believe it applies to them, believe that the consequences are serious enough to warrant action, can identify the affected products, and believe that discarding (or returning) the product is both necessary and sufficient to resolve the problem.”

A critical element required to motivate people to act during a recall is to help them see that the recall may be personally relevant to them.

Unfortunately, this can be challenging, as people tend to assume that if there is a food recall, it will affect others, and not them. This tendency is known as the “optimistic bias” and results in people erroneously believing that they are at less risk than others for something adverse happening to them.

A 2008 Rutgers national survey assessing consumers’ responses to food recalls found that while 92 percent of Americans agree that food recalls save lives, only 17 percent think it is likely that they have recalled foods in their homes.

Informing consumers that a store where they regularly shop was identified during a food recall increases personal relevancy, and, in so doing, makes consumers more likely to check the foods in their homes.

That, in fact, was the rationale FSIS used when finalizing its policy to regularly release the names of retail locations. The agency stated that providing such information serves as “an additional mechanism for prompting consumers to examine products stored in their refrigerator, freezer, or cupboard when there is a reasonable probability that the product will cause adverse health consequences.”

Disclosing retailers will improve recall effectiveness and increase consumer confidence
The FDA has been under mounting pressure to release the names of retailers that have sold recalled foods to consumers, a practice that USDA has been doing since 2008.  In December 2017, FDA Commissioner Gottlieb stated his desire to release such information, recognizing that it would increase the likelihood that consumers would not be exposed to recalled food.

I have confidence that FDA will work to provide this important information to consumers. Since the commissioner’s statement, the agency already has, on a case-by-case basis, named retailers. The risk communications literature provides a scientific basis to justify FDA providing information to consumers that will make it more personally relevant to them and increase the likelihood that they will not be exposed to recalled food.

Identifying individual stores throughout the country that have sold recalled foods will have the added benefit of increasing local media coverage, thereby raising consumer awareness. Further, as consumers come to count on the agency to provide this valuable information, they will have increased confidence in the FDA and its commitment to protect consumers.

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