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As the UK’s Food Standards Agency publishes guidelines for food companies on how to reduce the prevalence of food contaminations and how to act when they occur, researchers in Canada have suggested that food authorities may themselves have some lessons to learn about how to conduct food recalls. Ben Cooper reports.

The publication by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) of guidance on preventing and responding to food contaminations underlines the need to set out best practice for dealing with such incidents. However, it comes as research published in Canada casts doubt over the efficacy of food recalls, and suggests possible weaknesses in the way that food agencies publicise contaminations.

Although the FSA guidelines focus on helping food businesses to avoid contaminations, while also providing companies with advice about issues such as food traceability and their obligations regarding notification of incidents, the Canadian research points the way to possible best practice for executing a recall and keeping consumers informed.

The survey conducted by the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina looked at consumer reaction to the E. coli spinach contamination in the US and Canada in 2006.

The survey’s publishers believe the findings should give industry and legislators food for thought, and that there should be a reassessment of the effectiveness of food recalls and particularly of the communication strategies of food safety organisations.

The survey of 766 consumers was conducted over one week in March, six months after the spinach recall. The recall was ordered when more than 200 people fell ill from tainted spinach in Canada and the US, with at least three direct deaths and around 100 sent to hospital.

In the survey, almost three-quarters of respondents said that they had heard about the recall, but 36% of those who knew about the recall and had spinach at home at the time did not throw it out.

In seeking reasons why consumers reacted in this way, the researchers looked to the increased prevalence of food recalls. “Food recalls and allergy alerts are becoming more frequent occurrences,” Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, one of the researchers, told just-food. “Indeed, in the last month alone, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued no less than 26 public advisories for consumers and processors.”

Charlebois, assistant professor in marketing at the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina, said that a decade ago, the food industry widely believed that a recall was its worst nightmare. In 1997, the CFIA issued only 33 advisories throughout the whole year. “These fewer advisories may have had a greater influence on consumer perception,” he added.

The implication is clear. “Increasing recall frequency seems to have diluted the impact of recalls and made consumers more unresponsive to them, a negligence which may lead to deadly consequences,” the researchers add. “In fact, only recalls that are linked directly to deaths seem to spark any attention at all.”

The Regina researchers suggest that flaws in the way the authorities in Canada communicate with consumers during and after food scares could reduce the effectiveness of consumer protection strategies. And there could be lessons for authorities in other markets too.

“Over the last few years, the CFIA has successfully built a rapport with the media, but the results of this cooperation have been mixed,” Charlebois continues. “It is clear in our findings that the CFIA, which issued the recall, stranded consumers by failing to keep them informed. While the media has given more attention to food recalls of late, reporting focuses much more on potential dangers than resolutions.”

Charlebois believes the spinach recall serves as a case study for disseminating an advisory via the media. He contends that the information flow during these incidences is inconsistent. Because media interest in such stories tends to wane once the initial scare has passed, the information flow to the consumer can dry up. Follow-up information may never reach consumers, or only reach them in far smaller numbers. The survey found that 44% of consumers surveyed who knew of the original spinach recall did not know that the recall had ended.

“In our current information epoch, news is news for only a few days, and sometimes only hours,” says Charlebois. “The CFIA needs to account for this new reality by relying on other communication channels such as advertisement and public relations.”

Interestingly, he commends the FSA’s procedures in this regard. The FSA sends a free monthly newsletter to consumers around the world. In stark contrast, Charlebois adds, the CFIA’s current website is “disorganised and far from user-friendly”.

The researchers’ emphasis is on reform of the Canadian system, but some of the observations on how food safety agencies communicate with consumers during and after food scares, and particularly on the danger of relying too much on media interest to gain coverage, would be applicable to any market.

Initiatives like the FSA’s guidelines, which were developed in consultation with experts from the food industry, consumer groups and authorities, are constructive in helping to avoid contaminations – and ensure that food companies act swiftly and judiciously if a contamination occurs.

The Canadian research suggests that the pooling of experience and information among food agencies across different markets on managing the effects of food recalls on the public is extremely productive. And, ultimately, help reduce the damage done when contaminations occur.