Are con­sumers suf­fer­ing from ‘re­call fa­tigue’?

as notices rise, more peo­ple sim­ply ig­nore alerts to de­stroy or re­turn de­fec­tive goods

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By Lyn­d­sey Lay­ton

McDon­ald’s Corp. asked cus­tomers to re­turn 12 mil­lion glasses em­bla­zoned with the char­ac­ter Shrek. Kel­logg’s Co. warned con­sumers to stop eat­ing 28 mil­lion boxes of Froot Loops and other ce­re­als. Camp­bell’s Soup asked the pub­lic to re­turn 15 mil­lion pounds of Spaghet­tiOs, and seven com­pa­nies re­called 2 mil­lion cribs.

And that was just a sam­ple of the prod­ucts re­called in the U.S. in the past month.

Govern­ment reg­u­la­tors, re­tail­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers and con­sumer ex­perts are concerned that re­call notices have be­come so fre­quent across a va­ri­ety of goods — foods, con­sumer prod­ucts, cars — that the pub­lic is suf­fer­ing from “re­call fa­tigue.”

In many cases, peo­ple sim­ply ig­nore ur­gent calls to de­stroy or re­turn de­fec­tive goods.

One re­cent study found that 12 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who knew they had re­called food at home ate it any­way. Af­ter Has­bro re­called the Easy Bake Oven in 2007 be­cause about two dozen chil­dren had got­ten fin­gers stuck in the door, the toy­maker re­ceived 249 more re­ports of in­juries over the fol­low­ing six months. One 5-year-old girl was so se­ri­ously burned that doc­tors had to par­tially am­pu­tate a fin­ger.

“It’s a real is­sue,” said Jeff Far­rar, as­so­ci­ate com­mis­sioner for food pro­tec­tion at the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, who said even his wife has com­plained about the dif­fi­culty of keep­ing pace with re­calls. “That num­ber is steadily go­ing up, and it’s dif­fi­cult for us to get the word out with­out over­sat­u­rat­ing con­sumers.”

The prob­lem is twofold: Some peo­ple never learn that a prod­uct they own has been re­called, and oth­ers know they have a re­called prod­uct but don’t think any­thing bad will hap­pen.

“The na­tional re­call sys­tem that’s in place now just doesn’t work,” said Craig Wil­son, as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent for qual­ity as­sur­ance and food safety at Costco Whole­sale Corp. “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.”

The govern­ment main­tains a web­site (www. re­calls.gov) that of­fers in­for­ma­tion about all kinds of re­calls, and con­sumers can sub­scribe

Con­tin­ued from pre­vi­ous page for e-mail alerts about spe­cific prod­ucts. On Fri­day, fed­eral of­fi­cials plan to roll out a smart­phone ap­pli­ca­tion so con­sumers can check re­calls as they shop.

But it amounts to over­load, said Wil­liam Hall­man, pro­fes­sor of hu­man ecol­ogy at Rut­gers, the State Uni­ver­sity of New Jersey.

“There is so much in­for­ma­tion out there, if you paid at­ten­tion to ev­ery re­call no­tice that came out ev­ery day, you’d go nuts,” said Hall­man, who has stud­ied con­sumer at­ti­tudes to­ward food re­calls with a grant par­tially funded by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. He con­ducted a na­tional sur­vey last year in which 12 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they know­ingly had eaten a re­called food.

“Hu­man be­ings are com­plex crea­tures,” he said. “Some do ex­actly the op­po­site of what they’re told to do.” “By the time they fig­ure out they have an out­break and they can con­nect it to a food, most of that food is al­ready eaten,” he said.

And when it comes to foods with a longer shelf life, Marler said peo­ple have of­ten eaten the prod­uct and be­come sick af­ter it has been re­called.

De­spite a highly pub­li­cized re­call in 2007, con­sumers con­tin­ued to eat Peter Pan peanut but­ter con­tam­i­nated with sal­monella, and at least 100 peo­ple fell ill af­ter the govern­ment warn­ings, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. The same year, Ban­quet frozen pot pies were re­called in Oc­to­ber be­cause of sal­monella con­tam­i­na­tion, but con­sumers were still eat­ing the pies and get­ting sick through De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

The best way to prod con­sumers to re­spond to re­calls is for man­u­fac­tur­ers to no­tify them di­rectly, ex­perts say.

Au­tomak­ers use auto reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion to track down cus­tomers. “When you get a let­ter from Toy­ota say­ing there’s a safety prob­lem, you can’t say, ‘They’re not talk­ing about me,’ ” Hall­man said.

crib, easy bake oven: con­sumer Prod­ucT safeTy com­mis­sion; frooT LooPs: as­so­ci­aTed Press; sPagheT­Tios: busi­ness Wire; shrek gLass: as­so­ci­aTed Press; cane: geTTy im­ages

‘It’s dif­fi­cult for us to get the word out with­out over­sat­u­rat­ing con­sumers’ with re­call notices, says Jeff Fer­rar of the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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