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Apathy and Misinformation Surround Peanut Recall

By Jeff Webb

In our media-driven culture, it is difficult to imagine American consumers unaware of recalls announced by the FDA. The recent one involving peanut products processed at a Peanut Corporation of American facility in Georgia has been in the news since January. It has grown to become the largest food recall in U.S. history, infecting almost 700 people in 46 states with Salmonella and accounting for nine deaths (at press time).

But even in an information-rich environment, misinformation and consumer indifference continue to be problems. In fact, there is growing concern that the frequency and scope of food recalls may be creating an unintended and risky side effect: apathy.

Neal H. Hooker, PhD, an associate professor of food policy at Ohio State University and a visiting scholar at the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, released a report in February with his colleagues that examined the 2008 Salmonella outbreak that was first believed to come from tomatoes but turned out to be chili and jalapeño peppers. The full report is available at http://foodpolicy.rutgers.edu, but the gist is this: Despite repeated warnings, an alarming number of people surveyed either weren’t aware or simply did not care.

The public “gets desensitized,” Hooker says. “That was a problem [in 2008] and it’s a problem in the current recall.” He also found that too many consumers trust their supermarkets to identify and remove all recalled products from store shelves. Although most are diligent in doing so, some aren’t—and that can be dangerous.

California Senate Bill 550 would address that problem by requiring grocery stores using a programmable checkout scanner to flag any product on a recall list and share that information with the customer before completing the transaction.

Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) based in Orlando, Fla., echoes Hooker’s concerns about removing recalled products. “I don’t know how good the food manufacturers or supermarkets are at … making sure their products are not on the (recall) lists,” Gidus says. And she, too, is worried about consumers becoming desensitized to news about food recalls.

“In the media world we live in, people don’t have a lack of information, but there is so much information out there,” Gidus says, adding that it is important to find ways to stress the importance of the recall when it is “something major like this.”

“It’s really difficult, especially in this case,” to stay abreast of what products have been recalled, Gidus says. “I mean, I look at this list [and] I am completely lost. How can anyone go through a list of more than 2,000 products and then determine if you have [purchased] or eaten it in the past six months?”

Assumptions have also fueled misinformation in this recall. Gidus says when it was first announced, people told her they threw away their jars of peanut butter. “But it wasn’t the jars of peanut butter; it was worse” because the tainted peanut paste was in so many other products, such as candies, cereals, ice cream, and crackers.

Much of the contaminated peanut products were sold in volume to institutions. Gidus advises dietitians and foodservice managers to thoroughly check inventories against the FDA recall list (available at www.fda.gov). Marisa Moore, RD, LD, an Atlanta-based ADA spokesperson, endorses this advice. She says dietitians should make sure vendors know they are concerned about the recall and verify the information first-hand.

But Moore says she has no concerns that consumers are becoming unresponsive to recall alerts. “People are paying attention and asking questions,” she says. And when they have sought her advice, she has seized the opportunity as a teaching moment.

“This is a great opportunity for consumers to think about where their food comes from,” Moore says. “There is a bigger push now to purchase more in-season foods that are produced locally. That can really help with traceability in the event of a recall and also ensure that you are getting the best possible food.”

Meanwhile, Hooker will continue to study perceptions about food safety. “We can make recommendations for all sorts of policy changes, but when it comes right down to behavior change, people’s reactions depend on emotional, guttural responses,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do before we understand how to get messages across in a way people will react to them.”

— Jeff Webb is a freelance writer and editor based in Spring Hill, Fla.