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A Recall by Any Other Name

Our Q2 2018 Recall Index found that recall activity in the food space increased in Q2, especially when it came to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food units, which rose more than 20 times over the previous quarter to nearly 213 million, mostly due to one large recall of salmonella-contaminated eggs. But other measurements also saw increases.

It may come as a surprise, but those increases did not include the widely-publicized romaine lettuce issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on April 13 – well into Q2 – that an outbreak under investigation was likely the result of chopped romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region. So why wasn’t it part of our numbers? It wasn’t a recall.

The two agencies partnered to investigate the cause and have collaborated with a Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force that formed in response to the outbreak. But with no specific company, distributor, or other definitive source, the FDA issued a public warning rather than a recall.

For food companies, the distinction between the two isn’t merely semantics. It’s the difference between having your specific brand mentioned in the media in a negative light. But companies must also understand that, from a consumer perspective, it’s pretty much the same. Whether a recall or an alert, every piece of news about a food safety issue can add to consumer distrust. In our recent consumer survey, more than 80 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “given all the recent food recalls, I am more careful about the grocery items I purchase.”

On the other hand, recalls and alerts alike can also contribute to recall fatigue – when consumers are so inundated with recall notifications that they tune out individual issues that may have an impact on themselves and their families. Our survey also found that more than 3 in 5 Americans (64 percent) agree with the statement that recalls are “less about protecting consumers and more about government regulations.”

Those two figures may seem contradictory, but this may be a question of the type of product being recalled. A previous survey we conducted found that 70 percent of respondents rank food and pharmaceutical recalls as first or second most important.

It can be difficult for food companies to know whether consumers have responded to a recall because even those who take the step of checking their pantries or refrigerators will simply throw affected items in the trash rather than deal with the perceived hassle of returning them to retailers for a refund. Either way, food recalls can sometimes cause a flood of website visits and inbound calls, especially when the recall makes headlines or when retailers use loyalty program purchase history to notify their customers directly. In these cases, scalability becomes critical for assuring consumers are able to reach an agent with questions. 

While certain food issues, including the romaine lettuce outbreak, are out of companies’ control, a true recall involving a specific brand can be managed properly to help bolster consumer trust.

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