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Are Consumers Suffering From “Recall Fatigue”?

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U.S. government's Online Resource for Recalls

The U.S. government's "Online Resource for Recalls."

The dramatic increase in the number of products being recalled in the U.S. is causing regulators, retailers, and manufacturers to worry that the public might be experiencing a “recall fatigue,” in which people ignore or miss a recall that could impact their health, according to Christopher Doering, writing for the Gannett Washington Bureau in USA TODAY. Last year’s 2,363 recalls of consumer products (including cars and other vehicles), pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and food, marks a nearly 14% increase over 2010, and an even greater increase as compared with 2007, USA TODAY reports.

As Doering writes:

This year alone hundreds of recalls have already been announced. Pfizer recalled birth control pills after it was found there may have been an inexact number of pills that also could have been out of sequence, increasing the chance of an unintended pregnancy. IKEA asked its customers to return about 169,000 high chairs because the restraint buckle could open unexpectedly. And Dole warned the public not to eat a lettuce salad mix because of a possible health risk from salmonella.

Retailers and government regulators are increasingly struggling to reach people who may not know about a recall, or choose to ignore it despite the potential dangers. A 2009 study conducted by Rutgers found 12% of Americans ate food they knew had been recalled and 40% admitted never having looked for recalled products in their homes.

Sophie Ann Terrisse, chief executive of the brand-management firm STC Associates, told USA TODAY that many companies are being criticized for taking too long to announce recalls. The time lag, she said, is due to some firms becoming overwhelmed once they realize how much work is involved in conducting a recall.

In a post yesterday on his blog, barfblog, Dr. Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, writes that recall fatigue has been going on for years:

In July 2007, Robert Brackett, then director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said during the Castleberry canned chili sauce botulism outbreak consumers may be suffering ‘recall fatigue,’ given the rash of recalls the past year for spinach, carrot juice, lettuce, peanut butter, pet food and other products. ‘That’s a real phenomenon. If people aren’t getting sick or their family isn’t, they think ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me.” […]

Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco, was quoted as saying in 2010 that, ‘The national recall system that’s in place now just doesn’t work. We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind — ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ — people literally become immune to the message.’

Consumers can learn about product recalls on the government website, which covers recalls of cars, boats, food, medicine, cosmetics, and other consumer products. And USA TODAY notes that the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service improved its recall system in March with a Twitter feed that notifies people of recalls only when their state is affected. The one for Colorado is @CO_FSISAlert, according to Food Safety News.

Image by U.S. government, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


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