A survey conducted last month with 1049 respondents shows that the majority of Canadians underestimate the number of food recalls and that many have trouble remembering the details of such recalls. The margin of error for the survey is only 3.1%, meaning 19 out of 20 Canadians do not care about food recalls.
There were 155 food recalls in Canada in 2017. Over 60% of survey respondents underestimated the number of recalls by at least 100. “The majority of Canadians underestimate the number of recalls, which gives us an indication of the number of recalls the Canadian public is not aware of,” says Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University and author of the study.
As part of the survey, researchers provided respondents with the elements of three recalls over the last two years as well as a fictional reminder. Just over 40% of respondents remembered a particular recall that concerned frozen fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, almost 9% of respondents said that they remembered the fictional recall. “Consumers seem to be bombarded with various information and they tend not to pay attention to recalls, because there are so many,” says Sylvain Charlebois.
Researchers believe that the problem may be due to the quality of the information provided by governments. “The survey showed that 72% of respondents became aware of recalls through traditional media (television, radio and newspapers), while only 8.3% had information from government sources,” says Sylvain Charlebois.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) claims to provide detailed recall information on its website, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and directly to subscribers to its electronic notices. An application from Health Canada also provides information on all recalled products.
The deputy head of food safety at the agency, Aline Dimitri, has a simple explanation to offer regarding the results of the study. “If, for example, the recall does not concern you, chances are you’ll remember it less than if you had to take a product out of your fridge or kitchen cabinet and throw it away,” he said.
She estimates that the Dalhousie University survey actually shows that the system works, since 80% of respondents could cite at least one reminder in the last two years.
However, Sylvain Charlebois suggests to the agency to at least warn the population when reminders are lifted, which it does not currently do. The system would be strengthened, he said. “We rarely hear about the details of an investigation […] of the steps being taken to remedy the situation, and there is no mention of when it is possible to start consuming a product,” he argued.
This mention is not made for a good reason, retorts Ms. Dimitri. Recalls, she says, are never fully lifted. Recalled products can stay in people’s closets for a very long time, she says, so it’s important that information about them remains available on the agency’s website so people can be warned about it.