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Food recalls are alarming only if you pay attention to them

April 14, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Peanuts If you're among those Americans personally affected by the spate of food recalls involving, most notably, peanuts (a series that pained me deeply -- peanut butter Clif bars were not meant to be discarded nor returned) and, more recently, pistachios, you're not alone. But you don't seem to have a lot of company either.
Among the highlights of a new survey from Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute:

* Only 6 in 10 Americans had ever even bothered looking for a recalled product at home.

* Only 10% had ever found one.

Considering that almost 4,000 peanut products alone have been recalled in recent months, a fresh look at the pantry might be warranted.

Don't get Americans wrong. They say food recalls are important. Really. More than 90% would agree that recalls save lives. But about 32% think that maybe the government overreacts to them. And more than 20% suspect that most food recalls aren't serious enough to warrant their attention.

That lack of attention might explain why, when asked to assess how many recalls there had been both of meat and poultry products and of other food products in 2007, half of Americans surveyed guessed a total of 10 or fewer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration said there had been 58 and 77, respectively.

Taking into account the vagaries of daily news, Americans' extraordinarily busy lives and the fact that, after a while, the recalls do seem to blend together, it's little wonder that many individual recalls escape notice. The media can offer the big picture about food safety and consumer impact, complete with context, but if you need specific product reports (and to trust that you'll get that information when you're ready for it) ... well, you'd best have those alerts land in your inbox, for perusal when you're ready.

The Food and Drug Administration lets you sign up for alerts, recalls and assorted safety notices as they relate to potential food-related illnesses, possible allergen contamination and more.

I received 17 e-mail alerts while writing this post. Seriously. They began with one about Albanese Confectionary Group and wrapped up, for now, with one about Azar Nut Co. All were pistachio-related except for one involving undeclared fish protein (found in Old Cape Cod Sweet and Bold Grilling Sauce) and another involving medical devices (intra aortic balloon pump catheters from Arrow International).

So while the numbers can be overwhelming, recalls are most useful if you actually know about them. Whether you choose to consume that Clif bar once you've been told is up to you.

As the survey summary states: "To be effective, food recalls must generate sufficient attention and motivation among consumers that they take appropriate protective actions. The results of this national survey suggest that for many Americans, this simply has not happened."

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: They're a thing of beauty. But to truly appreciate them, you need to know they're safe. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times