Grocers are given failing marks on food recall transparency

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Feb 13, 2020
George Anderson

A new report says that 22 of the top 26 grocery chains in the U.S. deserve an “F” for policies and practices that fail to adequately inform consumers about food recalls.

The non-profit and non-partisan U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has published a 29-page report that claims that grocers from Aldi to Whole Foods are falling short of protecting the public from potentially dangerous foodborne illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million Americans are sickened each year with a foodborne illness. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die. The PIRG report says that when safety inspections fail to protect the public, the responsibility falls on grocers to communicate with consumers to keep them safe. Many, however, are falling woefully short, based on limited survey responses and publicly-available information, according to PIRG.

The group attempted to survey 26 of the largest U.S. grocery chains, but most declined to respond. PIRG then researched information about each chain’s response efforts by reviewing publicly available store policies, in-store customer notification and direct customer notification.

Eighty-four percent of the grocery store chains failed to provide any public description of their process for informing customers about recalls. The PIRG report asserts that this “leaves consumers to seek out this information and risk inconsistent implementation by individual stores.”

Fifty-eight percent of stores examined have a direct notification policy via phone or email to customers. PIRG was unable to discover how direct notifications were activated in the case of recalls.

Retailer websites did not include details on where recall information was posted in stores. “Notices may be placed at customer service desks, checkout counters, store shelves or elsewhere in the store,” according to the report. “Customers shouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to find out if food they recently purchased was recalled.”

Only two chain operators — Kroger and Target — were given a passing grade (C) for transparency and customer communications around food recalls. Kroger’s namesake stores, as well as its Harris Teeter and Smith’s divisions, were identified in the PIRG report.

The group is recommending that chains post food recall notification process information on their websites. It is also recommending that stores post Class 1 and Class 2 recall notices at checkouts and on store shelves where the recalled items were sold. Chains with loyalty program information should use those to directly alert customers within 48 hours of a recall being posted.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think the PIRG’s report accurately portrays how well grocery chains communicate food recalls and related safety issues? Where do you see opportunities for improvement?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"While PIRG’s report seems harsh, it proves the global grocery sector must prioritize collaboration to protect consumers."
"This is another example of numerous systems operating in silos instead of creating cross-channel communications."
"Having done hundreds of these across different companies, there is no consistency in communication to the retailer from the manufacturer, communication back to the vendor, etc"

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17 Comments on "Grocers are given failing marks on food recall transparency"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

It sounds to me like PIRG is criticizing the lack of transparency and consistency in how food recalls are communicated. This is opposed to the actual policies themselves, which PIRG has not be able to fully understand because retailers won’t speak about them. I guess this does raise questions over how easy it is for consumers to discover information. However, I have to say that it is not exactly a robust methodology from PIRG if they cannot base their findings on actual facts. Whole Foods, who they criticize, for example, does regularly post food recalls on the notice board in my store, so there is a policy there even if the company didn’t explain it to PIRG.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There are huge recall execution inconsistencies at store level across companies and regions. Communication and execution is critical.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

The report raises awareness on a very important issue. Anecdotally speaking, I don’t remember seeing posters in grocery stores on the current recalls.

As the report points out, it is not mandated by law. Few good corporate citizens may be showing the info as a best practice, but clearly a majority of grocers didn’t care.

For grocers, this may be an opportunity to build trust by voluntarily and proactively sharing the information, prominently. And of course there is merit in the FDA formalizing the policies.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
Food recalls are a nightmare for grocers, and that is a big part of the problem. It causes customer concern, and that can impact their willingness to shop at the impacted grocery store again. It is costly for the grocer taking back the products and reimbursing the customers, and it requires the workforce to manage the problem. So one might understand the reluctance of grocers to announce it when there is a problem. That said, it doesn’t mean grocers should take the problem lightly. I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off having an independent government-run program taking the responsibility and burden off of the individual grocers, but mandating their support and having them working with the organization. It’s not the fault of the grocer when a food product is recalled but, when it happens, if the grocer knew that a professional government agency would handle the problem and that their role was to support the notification to the customers about the recall, perhaps this might be a better solution. With all the money the… Read more »
Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

This is so true. Having done hundreds of these across different companies, there is no consistency in communication to the retailer from the manufacturer, communication back to the vendor, etc.

Retailers do the best they can but there is no best practice that can be communicated across all food businesses. How much more compliance would we have if the FDA formalized a process for all recalls?

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

We have all seen recall information on the news, in the newspapers, and on the internet. I can honestly say that I have never, ever seen a notice from or at a grocery store advising me of a recall on a product that they sold. Sounds like “F” is the correct grade.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Trust and transparency have always been front and center in the relationship between consumers and grocery stores/food providers. Food recalls are always unfortunate, however, grocery stores should take a stronger stance on quality control measures to contain and prevent their customers from being impacted.

If a food recall occurs once the food is in the marketplace, the PIRG report does raise awareness around the communication strategies that have to be put in place by the grocery stores. Consumers remain loyal to brands and companies when there is open communication and transparency when trouble surfaces. It’s ultimately all about trust.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

Many food retailers are more concerned about being held accountable by customers for recalls than they are about informing those shoppers. This leads to unclear policies, poor execution of recall processes, and a lack of leadership in an area where leadership is needed. Grocers should be experts in food, and do everything they can to educate customers and keep them informed, whether positive or negative.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

While PIRG’s report seems harsh, it proves the global grocery sector must prioritize collaboration to protect consumers. The grocery supply chain is globally entwined, and its integrity affects public health and safety.

Retailers face the daunting responsibility of ensuring that their entire supply chain reflects food safety best practices. To improve their agility, retailers need full collaboration with all their suppliers when food recalls arise, whether recalls are due to bacteria, product mislabeling or undeclared allergens. That means integration of retail processes and ongoing information-sharing among retailers and suppliers.

Working as a team is the only way retail companies can solve supply chain issues – especially potentially fatal recalls.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Clearly this is a problem, and just as clearly the solution isn’t as obvious as it seems at first blush. Yes, supermarkets should do a better job around recalls, but in our area many (though obviously not all) recalls are communicated on all the local television news broadcasts. Could grocers use their loyalty card information to directly email shoppers? They could, but that still wouldn’t touch everyone. Still, that would be one step in the right direction.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

How about they put a sign at the entrance of the store?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Gene, lots of folks do just that out here.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Pretty simple solution. Good for them.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

This is another example of numerous systems operating in silos instead of creating cross-channel communications. For me it’s the same challenge, (and frustration), when you have to give your details to a robo-operator and then have to repeat all the information again – IF you’re fortunate enough to actually talk to a human being. With all the data gathering that is going on everywhere — loyalty programs, delivery services, credit card and PoS data — it seems as though it shouldn’t be a stretch to contact someone for a food recall. I’ll bet those retailers are really good, or at least focused, at promoting and communicating which wine or coupon would go best with that chicken that just got recalled.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

I have only ever received food recall information from my local Kroger store, whether it was Ralph’s or Frys. This is another example of grocers not using their customer database information well.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

I always thought it was common practice for grocers to inform customers who were members of the store’s loyalty card program about recalls. I guess not. This is an issue that FMI should address.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

As we discussed a year ago on RetailWire, transparency across all industries (this previous discussion focused on pharmaceuticals), the supply chain must be focused on the consumer. And each stakeholder across the ecosystem must be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure consistent delivery of safe food, medicines, and products in general. There is opportunity for improvement at every turn … but, again, the consumer MUST be at the center.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"While PIRG’s report seems harsh, it proves the global grocery sector must prioritize collaboration to protect consumers."
"This is another example of numerous systems operating in silos instead of creating cross-channel communications."
"Having done hundreds of these across different companies, there is no consistency in communication to the retailer from the manufacturer, communication back to the vendor, etc"

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