Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

More on the Peanut Butter Recalls

The saga continues.

As of yesterday, the FDA was reporting just over 500 cases of salmonella, and its recall list has become epic.  Plenty of snack crackers, ice creams, and cookies are on the list, but so are a bunch of what most consumers imagine are “healthy” snacks, including Lära Bars, Clif Bars, Carob Energee nuggets at Whole Foods, Health Valley brand granola bars, and more.  Salmonella is an equal opportunity offender.  This lesson is an important one to learn.

If you go to the recall list, you may or may not notice the number of times the word “voluntary” appears in the list of recalls.  There’s a reason for that.  Several different types of recalls exist.  Here’s the skinny, from the FDA’s site on recalls.

Recalls are actions taken by a firm to remove a product from the market. Recalls may be conducted on a firm’s own initiative, by FDA request, or by FDA order under statutory authority.

  • Class I recall: a situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.
  • Class II recall: a situation in which use of or exposure to a violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote.
  • Class III recall: a situation in which use of or exposure to a violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences.
  • Market withdrawal: occurs when a product has a minor violation that would not be subject to FDA legal action. The firm removes the product from the market or corrects the violation. For example, a product removed from the market due to tampering, without evidence of manufacturing or distribution problems, would be a market withdrawal.
  • Medical device safety alert: issued in situations where a medical device may present an unreasonable risk of substantial harm. In some case, these situations also are considered recalls.

The short version is this: The FDA (or a company) may discover that there is good chance of a problem with a product. The company may recall it based on those findings.  If they don’t (and the FDA knew about the problems), the FDA can write them a very stern letter…a written request that they recall the product.  If they refuse, the FDA can start legal proceedings.  Meanwhile, more and more consumers potentially become ill or injured.  Because it’s almost inevitably in the best interests of companies not to let the situation get to this point, most recalls will be labeled “voluntary.”  It doesn’t really indicate any overly noble actions on the part of corporations, as it has implied to me in the past.

In any case, the question I have coming out of the peanut butter fiasco this time is this: why aren’t companies, as a default action when a recall is instigated, creating notices for supermarkets and other food distributors to post where said items are usually stocked?

True confessions time.

That Peanut Toffee Buzz bar pictured at the top of the page?  The one I blogged about last week?  The one from the recalled, potentially salmonella-encrusted batch?

I bought it in the afternoon of the day after the recall.  It was still on store shelves.

At the time, I didn’t know there had been a recall of Clif Bars.

What I did know is that the other two flavors of peanut butter Clif bars, by far my preferred flavors, were all out, which is how I wound up with this one.  (I realized in hindsight that they’d been pulled.)  Somehow, however, this box had been overlooked.  If Clif had created and distributed a simple pdf memo for consumers with the recall info they sent to stores, store personnel could post those up as they pulled bars.  Not only would this notify consumers who hadn’t been following the news that they should check their existing stock at home, it would have allowed me to wonder if maybe the Peanut Toffee bars ought to have been pulled as well.  I would have at least asked the cashier when I left, and someone would have checked, and the bars could have been pulled.  As it was, when I read about the recall the following morning, I called the store immediately and told them that I had bought a bar from them yesterday and asked them to check to make sure the box had been pulled from the shelves.

The end.

But it’s not.  I have some questions to which I really want answers.  Why aren’t companies routinely distributing consumer alert notices to be posted when food safety alerts go out to distributors?  During the E. coli tomato/jalapeño confusion of last year, whenever I saw notices posted in grocery stores about products missing from the shelves, it was something generated by the store itself, not by the food producer.  It seems like a simple task, one that might do a great deal to help protect consumer health and safety during situations like this, and it makes infibitely more sense to do it once at the level of the manufacturer than hundreds of thousands of times at the level of each distributor.



3 Comments so far

  1. Mangochild January 28th, 2009 6:00 am

    Wanting answers just about sums up my feelings too. It is frustration, and great mistrust. Not just in the manufacturers, but also in the agencies themselves – how much do we really know and when do we know it –> as related to when it *should* be known/detected? As you say, it should be something to trace back to the producer/maker rather than pull things after the fact at the distributor. Sigh. Thanks for the info on the FDA different kinds of recalls – things I never knew for sure, and its important.

    Oh! I did get your package the other day, thank you :-)

  2. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? January 28th, 2009 9:25 am

    I remember when the big pet food recall happened awhile back, there were signs on all the empty shelves. But now that you bring it up, I don’t remember if the signs were from the manufacturer or not. I think it was just a notice from Petco explaining their empty shelves…

  3. Laurel January 28th, 2009 10:20 am

    Right. And that seems odd to me. I recall the same things around here during past recalls: the individual retailer might make up a sign, but I don’t know that I’ve seen much if anything is stores from the manufacturer. There’s a couple problems with letting the responsibility for posting fall on the actual stores.

    #1. It’s inefficient. Why have multiple people reinventing the wheel at each store or chain?

    #2. Not everyone does it. I don’t know why, but they don’t. And, thanks to human error, sometimes products on the shelves that ought to be recalled are missed. I am definitely not the only person to buy a recalled product after they had supposedly been pulled. (Stores get notices immediately of recalls…it’s not like they have to be up-to-date with whatever is on channel 3. They get a specific notice about what should be pulled.) If the notice was posted uniformly in every store, surely consumers would be a) more likely to catch forgotten items on the shelves and b) better informed about what products already in their homes they should review for safety before consuming.

    For example, say that a recall notice goes up about Papa Pizza’s Pepperoni Pizazz, but you didn’t hear about it on the news. However, you go shopping and decide to pick up an extra Pepperoni Pizazz. If the shelves are just empty, you may think they’re simply out of stock. It there is a recall notice posted in the empty space, however, you get the information, and you can then go home to see if the Pepperoni Pizazz you still have in the freezer is on the recall list or not.

    This seems like a no-brainer. I want to know why it isn’t happening consistently. Is there resistance at store or corporate levels to posting about food safety issues unless they become part of mainstream media coverage? Do they prefer the empty shelves over actually telling consumers that potentially dangerous products have been sold?

    If health and safety are our priorities, why would that be the case?

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