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Food safety recalls – what more could be done?

Andrew Jackson discusses what could be done to improve the food safety recall system.

Posted on 06 January 2022

Many of us take for granted that the food we buy is safe. But with many commercially available food products, manufacturing processes can involve complex supply chains and a network of international suppliers.

Inevitably, unsafe food products will slip through the net and be sold to consumers. It is important therefore that we have a robust system to limit the harm caused when this happens.
 
When a potentially harmful food product is discovered, Food Business Operators (FBOs) must inform their local authority of the incident. A report can then be made to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to coordinate a nationwide recall process to ensure that consumers are protected from the unsafe product.
 
The FSA issues recall notices, and the FBO and their competent local authority work with the FSA and retailers to ensure that consumers are advised to return or dispose of the affected product. Food Alerts are published on the FSA’s website, and retailers and local authorities are expected to take necessary steps such as contacting consumers directly and otherwise publicising the recall.
 
Two recent cases from 2021 highlight some of the problems with the food recall system as it currently operates in the UK. One problem is the effective communication of food recalls, and another is the lack of transparency once a recall is issued.
 
Feline Pancytopenia
 
Animal feed is subject to the same recall system as food made for human consumption, and the recent deadly outbreak of Feline Pancytopenia triggered a recall of certain dry cat food products that were suspected to be linked to the outbreak. Some consumers were left angered by the perceived lack of action by the authorities and some retailers to ensure that the recalled products were removed from circulation.
 
Sainsbury’s, whose own brand of dry cat food was affected by the recall, came in for particular criticism when email notifications to some consumers were sent more than a month after the FSA issued the Food Safety Alert.
 
Leigh Day has been approached by more than 100 cat owners affected by the Pancytopenia scandal, and the feedback that we have received is that many pet owners learned of the recall not through seeing notices circulated by retailers or the FSA, but rather through social media awareness campaigns and through friends and family.
 
FSA Guidance to FBOs and food enforcement authorities encourages the use of in-store point-of-sale notices, posts on FBO/retailers’ websites, direct contact with individual consumers who have signed up for loyalty card schemes and dissemination of notices via social media.
 
Retailers of all stripes, including supermarket chains, invest considerable resources in data-driven marketing. Data available from social media platforms and consumers’ online footprints give advertisers much more insight into who buys their products than was the case 10 years ago. Consumers who have bought a recalled product may well ask themselves why, when retailers have the ability to micro-target adverts at them based on their age, location and purchase history, the same capability does not always seem to extend to notification of product recalls.
 
The food recall system in the UK is supposed to be a collaborative effort between the FSA, Local Authorities, FBOs and retailers. The FSA and Local Authorities however have a limited reach in terms of their public engagement capabilities and social media presence compared to major retailers and large FBOs. That businesses with huge advertising operations and access to an unprecedented amount of consumer data can in some instances be so slow to inform their customers that a product they have purchased has been recalled suggests that more could be done to publicise potentially life-saving food safety information.
 
Consumers cannot be expected to regularly monitor the FSA website for Food Safety Alerts, and so a more proactive approach to publicising food recalls is needed. Research carried out by the FSA in 2018 suggests that they are well aware of the difficulties they face in terms of public engagement, and so realistically it is retailers that will in most cases have the capability and expertise to do this.
 
Medjool dates
 
In April 2021, Sainsbury’s issued a Product Recall for their ‘Taste the Difference’ Medjool Dates product on the grounds that the “they might be contaminated with Hepatitis A”. Leigh Day represents a number of individuals who consumed these dates in early 2021 and went on to contract Hepatitis A, a virus that causes severe illness and impaired liver function.
 
Since the Product Recall Notice was publicised in April 2021, consumers have had no further information from the FSA, from Public Health England or from Sainsbury’s as to how this dangerous virus entered the food chain.
 
FSA Guidance advises FBOs to conduct a Root Cause Analysis to determine why the recall occurred, however there is no requirement that this information be made public. A Food Recall Notice ought not to be the end of the matter, however from our clients’ perspective, there has been no further information made publicly available since the recall was issued in April 2021. Many consumers, our clients included, will have serious questions about an incident such as this: how did this happen, and what is being done to ensure it does not happen again?
 
Sadly, when a food recall occurs, often these questions are left unanswered.
 
Conclusion
 
For the public to trust our food safety regime, it is vital that they are properly informed when a product recall is announced, and reassured that lessons are learned and steps are taken. The current system however is limited in its ability to do this.
 
Government authorities, as well as brands and retailers, must recognise that public engagement has to be a key pillar of any consumer protection regime.
 
If you have been injured due to an unsafe food product, you can contact Leigh Day’s Food Safety Team on 0203 780 0432.

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Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Andrew is a solicitor in the product safety and consumer law team

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