FDA wants to start naming retailers during food recalls to help consumers

Zlati Meyer 
Romaine lettuce is displayed on a shelf at a supermarket in San Rafael, California.
Getty Images

Food recall notices may soon start to include the names of retailers that sell the problematic items, not just the companies that manufacture them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is issuing a draft of rules about when retail information should be part of a food recall announcement, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

They will mostly apply to "serious recalls," those in which eating the food could cause "serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals" or in situations in which it's hard to figure out from the food's packaging – or lack thereof – if it's subject to the recall, such as deli cheese, nuts, fresh produce sold individually, rawhide chews or pet treats sold in bulk.

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The FDA would name both physical stores and online retailers, depending on who's selling the recalled items.

"Knowing where a recalled product was sold during the most dangerous food recalls can be the difference between a consumer going to the hospital or not," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. "While we can't prevent every illness, we can make sure we provide information to consumers to prevent more people from becoming sick from a recalled or hazardous food product."

When a food is recalled now, the FDA works with the food manufacturers to publicize information about the recall, including photos of labels, product descriptions, lot numbers and distribution details, such as the areas of the country where the affected food is sold. That's to help consumers figure out whether they have the recalled food in their fridges or cabinets and to tell them what to do with it. The public usually is advised to throw the items out or return them to the place where they bought them for a refund.

The FDA said it hasn't traditionally shared the names of specific stores who sold the recalled foods because of concerns about the confidential details of supplier-retailer relationships. In addition, in most cases the information recalling companies distribute is enough for shoppers to determine whether they've already purchased it and if not, how to avoid it.

"Identifying retail locations can be complex," Gottlieb said. "It can involve obtaining information from multiple parts of the supply chain, including the recalling company and intermediate distributors. But we also know this information can be very important to consumers."

He added that, in sharing retail details, the FDA may not be able to "fully verify the accuracy or completeness of the information it receives from recalling companies or distributors, and the information may change over time."

The FDA has already begun to name retailers in some cases, it said. When pre-cut melon was recalled this summer due to salmonella infections, the FDA released retail information by state to help consumers identify the fruit affected by the recall.

"We can never become too vigilant when talking about food safety," said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. "We're talking about 48 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year and that estimate being stable over the last 10 years. There are lots of ways for improvement."

He said he personally shops at numerous grocery stores for his family, so he doesn't always remember where he buys what, especially unmarked items, like sweet potatoes and onions.

The FDA plan to cite specific retailers "can trigger that 'Oh, I did shop at these places. Maybe I need to start looking,'" Chapman said.