What should you do when a food is recalled? Food safety experts weigh in.

Food recalls happen. Experts say there are things you should (and shouldn't) do when faced with one. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Food recalls happen. Experts say there are things you should (and shouldn't) do when faced with one. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Food recalls can be a perilous situation for consumers. From electronics to vehicles to the foods we consume, no product is immune from the potential to be recalled, but when items you've purchased from the grocery store are found to be unsafe, there's often extra concern. Add in the fact a company knows recalls can affect consumer confidence in its brand if it mismanages the handling of a safety issue, and it's normal to question what you should do when a food is recalled.

Food product recalls can be especially problematic as the concern for illness is often heightened. How can consumers protect themselves when a food recall occurs? What avenues of restitution exist, if any, for those who have been negatively affected by such a recall?

What to do if you have a recalled food product

According to FoodSafety.gov, the official website of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the first step in handling a recalled product is not to panic. "Most food recalls are not associated with a food-borne illness outbreak, and many recalls are issued because there is a potential for the food to be contaminated," the website reads.

Matt Regusci, director of growth at ASI Food Safety, agrees. "Food and beverage products may be recalled for many different reasons," Regusci tells Yahoo Life. "It can be as simple as a label issue or as scary as a multi-state pathogenic outbreak."

Experts say it's better to be safe than sorry, even if an item recall is due to a simple labeling issue. The safest response to a recall is not to consume the product.

How can you protect yourself during a food recall?

Consumers have the right to know when a food product is recalled and why. Francine Shaw, the chief operating officer of Savvy Food Safety shares that many recalls are voluntary. "However, if a company chooses not to do a product recall, the FSIS or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will not have any other choice but to remove the product from shelves or halt the processing of that food product," says Shaw.

Products affected by a recall can sometimes be returned to the store for a refund. However, these refunds are situational and often determined by the supplier or the consumer packaged goods (CPG) company. Either way, when a recall occurs, all affected products are removed from store shelves or from restaurants where the item is being used. Consumers are also alerted to the change through signage and alerts posted on the company website and social media pages.

Clear, concise instructions for consumers to follow are just as important as recalling a potentially dangerous product. The USDA's website for food safety maintains a page for recalls and outbreaks, and also posts major alerts on their Twitter account, @foodsafetygov.

Food safety experts say washing your hands after you've handled a recalled food product is important. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Food safety experts say washing your hands after you've handled a recalled food product is important. (Photo: Getty Creative) (jacoblund via Getty Images)

Important food safety basics

A few critical food safety basics can also assist consumers during a recall. Once a recalled product is identified, the temptation to open and "check" the food is hard to resist, but viruses or bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses are often unable to be seen, smelled or tasted.

Shaw says washing your hands before you begin food prep is one of the easiest things to do when it comes to basic food safety. Similarly, washing your hands after handling a recalled product is a great way to reduce the chance of illness from the contaminated product.

Toby Amidor, a clinical dietician and food safety expert, tells YahooLife, "If someone has a recalled product that they have been eating, they should not continue eating from it. They can return it to the store for credit or discard it as per the recall notice's instructions."

"They should monitor for symptoms of food-borne illness — like vomiting or diarrhea — or an allergic reaction, and they should contact their health care provider if needed," Amidor adds.

How food brands restore consumer confidence

How a beloved brand handles a voluntary or mandatory recall can help or hinder the public's perception of the brand. "I have seen recalls handled so poorly the brands are ruined, and I have seen the opposite where companies have handled the recall so well that consumers have even more trust in the company post-recall," says Regusci.

Chris Harvey, senior vice president at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator, says communication is key. "The communication strategy can be a critical component to demonstrate safety is a core priority to a brand," says Harvey. "Clear and concise instructions are important to drive consumer response, along with a fair and timely remedy. If recalls are managed properly, they can help build trust and brand loyalty."

Food recalls are on the decline

Food product recalls may seem alarming, but according to the FDA, they have significantly declined over the last five years.

Data from Sedgwick shows that, over the last five years, the most impacted products were:

  • Eggs (207 million units recalled)

  • Supplements (185 million units recalled)

  • Prepared foods (172 million units recalled)

The leading cause of these recalls were undeclared allergens, bacterial contamination and foreign materials.

Brand transparency and effective communication are among the leading reasons consumers retain or regain confidence in brands after a recall. Peace of mind is an important aspect of maintaining the public's trust in a brand when otherwise negative associations threaten consumer confidence.

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