Overcoming Recall Fatigue

RonBottrell By Ron Bottrell
senior counselor and director – food safety group

After eight illnesses attributable to a chili ingredient had been identified by the Center for Disease Control, prompting a product recall, Dr David Acheson, then the Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, was weighing up how to raise public awareness.

Store audits were finding recalled products still on the shelf; new illnesses were surfacing weeks into the recall. No one had died…yet. So with no “body count” the recall wasn’t considered “newsworthy” by the mainstream media or networks. “How,” wondered Dr David Acheson of the FDA, “do you tell people: I know you’ve seen hundreds of other food product recalls of late, but this one is really serious.”


Flash forward three years to 2010 and more than 2,000 Class I food product recalls later, it’s understandable why consumer awareness of recalls is waning, even for individuals who make an effort to stay informed. In 2009 the number of Class I FDA recalls skyrocketed to 1450 compared to 380 the prior year. Some 55 percent were attributable to three ingredient suppliers of peanuts, powdered milk and pistachios. Layer on another 80 USDA regulated product recalls for meat and poultry products, and another 560 non-food product recalls regulated by the Consumer Products Safety Commission for toys, cribs and appliances, and the recall picture becomes a total blur.

Recalls will continue to increase
This a situation that is set to increase, as the FDA and USDA, even without the recall authority called for in proposed new food safety legislation, become even more aggressive in their detection, testing and enforcement procedures. The U.S. situation reflects what is happening globally as other governmental agencies are also tightening their enforcement standards.

While the number of recalls is on the rise, FDA guidelines for companies announcing a product recall haven’t changed much over the past two decades. They still reflect a pre-Internet era when wire services created a ripple effect of local media stories. The reality is that most recall press releases go unreported and unnoticed in mainstream media and can be found only by searching online databases.

Role of Social Media and Software Technology
How do you personalize the message? How do you target the person who has purchased a recalled product and may be at risk? Social media and networks such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly being used by public health agencies to alert consumers about health risks including recalls. Although they’re what’s cool and reach millions, social media are not the be-all, end-all answer to recall fatigue.

Drive Awareness and Action Throughout the Supply Chain
It is generally accepted that for brand owners, the nature of their res­ponse to a product recall / crisis is crucial to safeguarding reputation. For example, one approach could be to drive awareness throughout the supply chain. Greater ability to identify particular batches of products and track them effectively through the supply chain would mean recall action could be limited to fewer products and communications could be more effectively targeted.

While we think of recall communication as consumer-focused, in our current climate of recall fatigue, companies may be more effective at protecting consumers by concentrating on and improving their communication with direct customers — retailers, wholesalers and brokers. Now, more than ever, there needs to be a business-to-business focus to communications, and recall plans need to be reviewed with the operations personnel who will execute them, not just the Communications officer.

Too often, customer communications is an overlooked component in a Crisis Communication Plan. Ensuring recalled products are quickly removed from store shelves can be equally as important as removing them from consumers’ pantries.

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