Report: U.S. food recall system dangerously slow and out-of-date

BOSTON — In December, California-based Fresh Express announced a recall of 225 salad products in 19 states, including Massachusetts, after a potential listeria contamination. The company announced the recall on Dec. 20, but it wasn’t posted by the FDA until seven days later, on Dec. 27.

That’s one example in a recent report from consumer watchdog MASSPIRG that describes the country’s food recall system as out-of-date and lacking urgency.

“The problem is pretty significant,” MASSPIRG Legislative Director Deirdre Cummings said. “All too often we learn of the recall after the food has been sold or that you have it in your kitchen.”

In the report, “Food For Thought: Are Your Groceries Safe?” MASSPIRG surveyed 50 of the largest grocery chains in the country. The group found only half of the retailers notify customers of a recall by phone, text or email within one business day. One third of stores put the onus on customers to check the store’s website or social media accounts for recall notices, the report said.

The report also singled out ALDI, which has more than a dozen locations in Massachusetts. Instead of notifying shoppers if there’s a recall, customers are advised to check the company’s website, then directed to a link for the government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“We’re using old tactics and technology to alert us to something where we could improve that significantly by a number of easier, quick fixes,” Cummings said. “How can we notify the public quickly and efficiently so that we can prevent these illnesses?”

Food poisoning is more common than you might think. The CDC estimates each year one in six Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from contaminated food or beverages. The USDA estimates foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. more than $15.6 billion each year.

“Under the FDA, only two notifications of a recall are currently required: One, a posting on the FDA’s recall website. Two, a news release from the company that’s actually initiating the recall. No one has to contact grocery stores. No one has to notify customers,” the MASSPIRG report said.

Federal law requires more direct notifications, including in-store signs on shelves, but MASSPIRG said the guidelines under an 11-year-old law are neither finalized nor enforced.

Cummings said stores need to take advantage of the information collected when shoppers use loyalty or membership cards.

“[They] have a great tool. They know exactly what you’re purchasing. When you swipe your card they see what’s in your basket, what you take home and put in your refrigerator. They could immediately go to those people who just purchased [the recalled item] and say, ‘Hey, throw that out,’” Cummings said.

Dedham shopper Annie Hallion said she never thinks about recalls when she goes the grocery store. If it’s not on the news, she said she probably won’t find out about it.

“That’s the scary part, consuming something that could be harmful to you,” Hallion said. “[Stores] should be on top of it when technology is at everybody’s fingertips.”

MASSPIRG recommends consumers register with the FDA and USDA for food recall alerts.

“Consumers should do more to be informed,” the report said. “Consumers should be proactive to make sure they have multiple ways to find out about recalls through their grocers, free apps, government alerts and news alerts.”

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