Food recalls constantly capture the headlines, but a new study by Dalhousie University found there is a lack of awareness and an abundance of confusion about food recalls.
The survey of 1,049 Canadians shows that the majority of consumers greatly underestimate the number of recalls issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). More than 60% said there were fewer than 50 recalls in 2017, while the actual number was 155.
While 79% of respondents had heard something about recalls in the last two years, awareness was low when it came to specific recalls. Just over 62% had not heard of the flour recall (which occurred in May 2017), 59% had not heard about frozen fruits and vegetables being recalled (May 2016), and 71% had not heard about hummus being recalled (November 2016). Presented with these three recalls and one that was fabricated, only 4% accurately recalled hearing about the three real ones but not the false one.
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Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University, says the results indicate that Canadians are confused about food recalls in general. “In 2017, we had three recalls a week on average and that’s a lot of noise,” he says. “That’s mixed into all of the news we see and hear about every day, and food recalls are competing with the latest Donald Trump tweet. It’s difficult for Canadians to get the real story, but I don’t think we should rely solely on media to convey risks to the public.”
What is the better way? Charlebois suggests the CFIA do a better job of communicating with the public during a food recall, and the government agency’s website should be the first fix. “Have you ever been on CFIA’s website? It’s utterly boring and unimpressive, and it doesn’t resonate with the Canadian public,” he says.
“They need to make sure that the information on the website is readily available and easy to understand within seconds. Right now, there’s a lot of scientific gibberish that few people understand.”
Secondly, Charlebois says the CFIA should “close the loop” on recalls. “It’s great to say to people ‘stop eating this or that.’ But they should also provide information about what goes on during the investigations, and also when consumers can eat a product again safely. There’s none of that.”
Charlebois adds that the more the CFIA can do when it comes to risk communication, the better for the grocery business.
“Grocers are often put it in a position to take the hit on any recall,” he says. “They’re the ones interacting with the public and they’re the ones that have to answer questions directly. If you have a public agency serving the public and that actually provides more information and becomes more transparent, it will make grocers’ duties as risk communicators less onerous.”
The survey also found that the majority of consumers (57%) said food recalls have become more of a concern to them over the last five years. However, there is a high level of confidence in the regulatory system. More than 71% of respondents agreed that when they hear about food recalls, they feel confident because the regulatory system is working.
Charlebois says the high level of confidence in the system is a fundamental asset for the government to have. “But at the same time, you also want to make sure that people actually understand how the system works. And I’m not sure that’s the case right now.”