What should you do when a food is recalled?

Food recalls happen.  Experts say there are things you should (and shouldn't) do when dealing with one.  (Photo: Getty Creative)

Food recalls happen. Experts say there are things you should (and shouldn’t) do when dealing with one. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Food recalls can be a dangerous situation for consumers. From electronics to vehicles to the food we eat, no product is immune to the possibility of a recall, but when the products you bought at the grocery store are found to be unsafe, there’s often an added concern. Add in the fact that a company knows that recalls can affect consumer confidence in its brand if it mishandles a safety issue, and it’s normal to question what to do when a food is recalled.

Food product recalls can be particularly problematic as concern about illness is often heightened. How can consumers protect themselves when there is a food recall? What remedies, if any, exist for those adversely affected by such a recall?

What to do if you have a recalled food product

According to FoodSafety.gov, the official website of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the first step in handling a recalled product is not to panic. “Most food recalls are not related to a foodborne illness outbreak, and many recalls are issued because there is one potential to contaminate food,” the website says.

Matt Regusci, director of development at ASI Food Safety, agrees. “Food and beverage products can be recalled for many different reasons,” Regusci tells Yahoo Life. “It can be as simple as a label issue or as terrifying as a multi-state pathogen outbreak.”

Experts say it’s better to be safe than sorry, even if an item recall is due to a simple labeling problem. The safest response to a recall is to not consume the product.

How can you protect yourself during a food recall?

Consumers have the right to know when a food product is being recalled and why. Francine Shaw, CEO of Savvy Food Safety says many recalls are voluntary. “But if a company chooses not to issue a product recall, FSIS or the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have no choice but to remove the product from the shelves or stop processing that food product,” says Shaw.

Products affected by a recall can sometimes be returned to the store for a refund. However, these returns are occasional and often determined by the supplier or consumer packaged goods (CPG) company. Either way, when a recall is made, all affected products are removed from store shelves or restaurants where the product is used. Consumers are also notified of the change through signs and notices posted on the company’s website and social media pages.

Clear, concise instructions for consumers to follow are just as important as recalling a potentially dangerous product. The USDA Food Safety website maintains a recall and outbreak page, and also posts important alerts on their Twitter account, @foodsafetygov.

Important Food Safety Basics

Some critical food safety basics can also help consumers during a recall. Once a recalled product is identified, the temptation to open and “inspect” the food is hard to resist, but the viruses or bacteria that cause foodborne illness often cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.

Food safety experts say washing your hands after handling a recalled food product is important.  (Photo: Getty Creative)

Food safety experts say washing your hands after handling a recalled food product is important. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Shaw says washing your hands before you start preparing food is one of the easiest things you can do when it comes to basic food safety. Likewise, washing your hands after handling a recalled product is a great way to reduce the chance of illness from the contaminated product.

Toby Amidor, a clinical dietitian and food safety expert, tells YahooLife: “If someone has a recalled product that they have eaten, they should not continue to eat it. They can return it to the store for credit or dispose of it in accordance with the revocation of notice instructions.”

“They should watch for symptoms of foodborne illness — such as vomiting or diarrhea — or an allergic reaction and should contact their health care provider if needed,” Amidor adds.

How food brands are restoring consumer trust

How a beloved brand handles a voluntary or mandatory recall can help or hinder public perception of the brand. “I’ve seen recalls handled so poorly, brands destroyed, and I’ve seen the opposite, where companies have handled the recall so well that consumers have even more confidence in the company after the recall,” says Regusci.

Chris Harvey, senior vice president at Sedgwick, a third-party medical claims administrator, says communication is key. “Communications strategy can be a critical element in demonstrating that safety is a key priority for a brand,” says Harvey. “Clear and concise instructions are important for consumer response, along with fair and timely handling. If managed properly, recalls can help build trust and brand loyalty.”

Food recalls are decreasing

Food product recalls may seem alarming, but according to the FDA, they have decreased significantly over the past five years.

Data from Sedgwick shows that, over the past five years, the products most affected were:

  • Eggs (207 million units recalled)

  • Supplements (185 million units recalled)

  • Prepared foods (172 million units recalled)

The main cause of these recalls was undeclared allergens, bacterial contamination and foreign materials.

Brand transparency and effective communication are among the main reasons consumers maintain or regain trust in brands after a recall. Reassurance is an important aspect of maintaining public trust in a brand when otherwise negative associations threaten consumer trust.

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