Recalls – The Boy Who Cried Wolf?

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I was on vacation in New Mexico last week.  A nice dose of Vitamin D and 60 plus degree weather and the snowstorm forecast for Sunday – Tuesday seems a little less daunting.  The subzero temperatures on a daily basis, however, I am completely done with.  Give me 100 over 0 any day.

While in line at Smith’s Grocery the gentleman in front of me used his bonus card.  An alert popped up on the cash register advising the clerk that this customer had purchased product subject to a recall.  The clerk explained what had happened.  The customer stated the food was already consumed and he had not gotten sick but thanked the clerk just the same.

This brought to mind two things:

1.  In the current world of connectedness it still amazes me how people know so much about your activities.  I first became aware of this recall notification system when I bought Nestle Cookie dough from Costco.  Costco’s program sends e-mail notification to all customers who purchase recalled product.  Overall I think this is a good thing, although I believe the return rate remains horrendous.  Most people eat the product, or throw it out, but few return it.  That is unfortunate because the company is “graded” on how much product they are able to retrieve – especially if there is illness involved.

2.  The recall at Smith’s was part of the Rancho Feeding Corp debacle that now dates back to January 2013, a mere 13 months of raw meat, used in countless products throughout North America.  While it seems this company was less than pristine it does call into question the efforts of so many for product that has not caused any illness.

Has the significant increase in the number of recalls resulted in people taking them less seriously?  I try to return products that are recalled if I have them or the container, but only because of the grading I mentioned above.  It’s unlikely that I will fall gravely ill from product subject to recall for pathogens.  Foreign material requires a bit of extra caution but can be handled during preparation.  Chemical contaminants could be serious but is extremely rare.

So, back to my boy who cried wolf question.  Have we so desensitized the general public that they do not pay attention to recalls?  The alternative is have we so publicized recalls (CNN now reports them routinely) that people are losing faith in the safety of their food?  Unfortunately I believe it is quite a bit of both.  Recently I’ve heard several news and financial celebrities referring to the risks associated with food production.  Jim Cramer relayed on his show that the current financial performance of WhiteWave (Horizon, Earthbound Farms) is largely due to the failure of large agriculture to produce safe product.  For the record, WhiteWave is large agriculture, just organic large agriculture.

I’m not ready to offer a solution but do encourage manufacturers and public relations firms in the food industry to pause and consider the ramifications of both options.  Is it better to provide an abundance of information and desensitize the public to the point they don’t pay attention?  Do we need to reexamine the class levels of recalls to take into account the reporting of illness?  I think it’s a topic worthy of discussion.