How safe are your groceries? A new study says it depends on where you shop

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Surprisingly, retailers don’t have to notify customers directly about recalls

A new study from the consumer watchdog U.S. PIRG suggests that the public isn’t always kept in the loop about food recalls.

The organization contacted 50 of the largest grocery and convenience store chains to learn how they get the word out to customers when a contamination is discovered and food items are pulled from the shelves. It found that some grocery chains take several steps, but some do very little.

It's not just companies that could do more though; apparently, some federal agencies need to up their game too. The most glaring example that the researchers gave was when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled 225 varieties of bagged lettuce, spinach, and salad products in December because of a potentially deadly contamination. The researchers said it took the agency an entire week to get an alert published. 

The U.S. PIRG found that the FDA also dragged its feet last year when an onion recall was issued due to an outbreak of salmonella. More than 1,000 people ultimately got sick, with a quarter of them being hospitalized.

Lax notification standards could cost lives

Stores are not required to notify customers directly of recalls. The FDA currently only requires a company to post on its recall website and publish an official news release that initiates the recall.

Unfortunately, being casual about issuing notices could prove to be fatal. The U.S. PIRG researchers cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that one in six Americans – or about 55 million people – get sick each year from foodborne diseases. Of those,128,000 wind up in the hospital and 3,000 die. 

“We need to do a better job on the easy part – warning consumers what could make them sick,” said Teresa Murray, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s consumer watchdog. “It’s horrifying that eating contaminated salad, fruit or chocolate could make you deathly ill, but it’s even worse when you realize that some food poisoning easily could be prevented with better public awareness.”

Which companies do the best job of alerting their customers? In its analysis, the U.S. PIRG stated that one of the leaders is Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, which has nearly 500 grocery stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Maryland. The company's standard operating procedure is to make automated phone calls to customers who have loyalty cards and a phone number on file.

Other chains that the consumer watchdog thought deserved a thumbs-up included Albertsons, CVS, Costco, Winn-Dixie, Food Lion, Amazon, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's.

With toxicity rising on the chart of health safety concerns, consumers can find out how retailers are progressing towards reducing and eliminating toxic chemicals and offering safer, more sustainable products and packaging. Minding the Store offers consumers a “report card” that they can use to assess how 50 of the largest retailers in North America rank on the chemicals they use in their products.

ConsumerAffairs also covers recalls of all products in its daily email newsletters. To sign up for those emails, click here.

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