‘It seems as though there’s lots of noise out there and consumers don’t tend to pay attention’

Richard Woodbury – CBC News

The co-author of a new study says most Canadians lack awareness of food recalls, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency disputes that.

In 2017, there were 155 food recalls in Canada.

“The majority of Canadians do underestimate the number of recalls, which is indicative of how many food recalls may be missed by the Canadian public,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

The study, titled Are Canadians Experiencing Food Recall Fatigue? A Study on Food Recall Efficiency in Canada, is based on an online survey with a sample size of 1,049 respondents. The estimated margin of error is 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Vast majority underestimate number of recalls

Charlebois said the study found almost 88 per cent of respondents underestimated the actual number of recalls, with 61.4 per cent believing there were fewer than 50.

As part of the survey, people were asked if they were aware of four specific recalls that happened in recent years, three which were high-profile in nature and one that was fake. Among the real recalls, which applied to flourhummus, and frozen fruits and vegetables, the one respondents remembered most was frozen fruits and vegetables, with 40.2 per cent of participants remembering them.

The trick question was about a phony potato recall, and 8.8 per cent of respondents said they had heard of it.

Less than four per cent of respondents were able to correctly identify three of the recalls as being real and one as being false.

“It seems as though there’s lots of noise out there and consumers don’t tend to pay attention to recalls in general because there are so many,” said Charlebois.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency gets the word out about food recalls through its website, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and it also has an email notification list. As well, a Health Canada app called Healthy Canadians offers users the option to be notified about food recalls.

Aline Dimitri, the deputy chief food safety officer for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said she’s not surprised that people underestimated the number of recalls or had poor accuracy in recalling specific ones.

“If, for instance, the recall did not land as a concern in your own household, then perhaps you remember it less than … if you had to take a product out of your fridge or out of your cupboard and get rid of it,” she said.

Dimitri said the study’s findings don’t mean people didn’t hear about the recalls. Rather, they might just not remember them.

Notification system is working, says agency

She said the study’s suggestion that almost 80 per cent of respondents were aware of a food recall over the last two years shows the system is working.

Charlebois said one of the ways the food recall system in Canada could be improved is by providing notification of when recalls are lifted.

“Very rarely do we hear about what actually goes on during an investigation if there’s a breach, if any measures were taken to rectify the situation and, of course, there’s no mention of when a product is safe to eat again,” he said.

“In other countries around the world, you do see that.”

Dimitri said there’s a reason why notification isn’t provided.

“When you think about it, a recall is never completely lifted. So some people will keep food products in their cupboard for a long time or may not remember that they have it, and so we need to keep it on the books so that, if somebody wants to look to make sure, then it is there,” she said.