Are consumers suffering from ‘recall fatigue’?
as notices rise, more people simply ignore alerts to destroy or return defective goods
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.