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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to step up its implementation of an in-store recall notification program required by the 2010 food safety reform law.
Citing a provision of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that requires supermarkets with more than 15 stores to post recall notices from producers in conspicuous locations for 14 days, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy organization’s survey of 32 of the nation’s leading grocers found that work remains to be done to tighten the net.
“More than five years after the law’s passage, and more than three years after the statutory deadline for implementation, the system is not yet in place,” according to the CSPI report. Yet, while most chains that responded to its survey post in-store notices, placement varied, with some posted at entrances, some at cash registers and some where the recalled product had been shelved.
In a letter to FDA Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, CSPI wrote that it's concerned by the agency’s lack of progress on this particular provision of the FSMA.
“There’s no foolproof approach, but in-store notification of recalled foods should be one of several overlapping systems aimed at helping Americans reduce their risk of eating contaminated food,” said CSPI Senior Food Safety Attorney David W. Plunkett. “Supermarkets are clearly doing an uneven job, and the FDA is taking far too long to implement the notification system that the law requires.”
CSPI’s report, "Building a Food Recall System that Really Protects Consumers," also surveyed supermarkets onwhether they use the data collected by their “bonus card” or other programs to directly notify consumers who have purchased recalled foods.
Walmart, Kroger and Costco all notify consumers directly, while others, including Publix, H-E-B and Whole Foods, don’t have loyalty programs that collect data. Of the chains that collect data, Food Lion, Cub Foods and Winn-Dixie didn’t disclose whether they use the information to notify consumers about recalls.
CSPI recommends that “consumers keep an eye out for recall notices in supermarkets and safely dispose of or return recalled products. Consumers should also ensure that grocery stores with membership cards or customer loyalty programs have their accurate contact information.”
The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) vigorously defended the industry's demonstrated commitment to food safety. "To suggest a preferred method on behalf of the shopper is simply unsubstantiated and incorrect," asserted Hilary Thesmar, FMI's V.P. of food safety programs.
"Recalls happen and they happen for a variety of reasons. No matter the root cause, food retailers take them seriously and act swiftly to remove the questioned product from commerce and alert their customers."
Thesmar continued: "Grocers have more responsibility in terms of ensuring that the foods are taken care of while they are in their control and that the food is safely prepared, handled, and delivered to customers. There are numerous ways to communicate food safety – but they all relate to the changing role of the retailer."
Citing findings from FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2016, Thesmar pointed to research which "demonstrates that the customer is also changing. They are no longer assigning loyalty to a primary store, and further complicating the shopper-retailer relations, there are more shoppers than U.S. households. Respecting the evolving customer dynamic, food retailers understand that there are multiple ways to communicate with their shoppers, especially during a food recall. In fact, in our report, survey respondents overwhelmingly stated that they want to hear about a food recall via email (56%). Second place was a statistical tie among in-store notifications (39%), text messages (26%), information at the checkout register (25%) and social media updates (18%). The U.S. mail (14%) and notifications via the store’s smartphone app (11%) ranked third in terms of recall notification preference. Further," added Thesmar, "as technology evolves and retailers develop more effective and efficient ways to communicate information to their customers, supermarkets will adjust these mediums to address changing consumer preferences in the future in an accurate manner.
"Since there’s no one way that consumers obtain information, grocery stores must leverage multiple channels when communicating a recall – traditional media, social media, websites, loyalty cards, phone calls, customer emails or in-store notifications," she affirmed, adding that above all, "The safety of customers is the primary concern for FMI members. Food retailers safeguard the relationship they have with their customers and work diligently to ensure they are going above and beyond what many government regulations require. Our members tell me it’s really about a management commitment and caring about your customers in order to do the right thing."
Accordingly, Thesmar summed, "Supermarkets are well-positioned within their customers’ circle of trust and will continue to deliver on their food safety promises."