Consider a familiar scenario: a regulator announces a recall of a product after reports of a possible link between the product and some form of bacterial contact or contamination.  Some hours or days later,  multiple subsequent recalls are also announced for either the same product with different lots, batches, "sell-by" dates or distributors or for products that use the originally recalled product as an ingredient.  In many cases, no actual contamination of the products is confirmed and, in the majority of cases, there were no reports of illness or injury.

This type of recall, where a new recall is announced in respect of a product with a connection to an earlier recall, may be referred to as a "derivative" recall – the subsequent recalls either flow from, or are based on, the first announced recall.

This year in Canada, roughly 25 percent of the Class 1 (highest risk) recalls announced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) between January 1, 2013 and November 12, 2013 were derivative recalls.1 However, derivative recalls were also announced when only a moderate risk was identified (Class 2), and even where the recall had been classified as low risk or no risk (Class 3).

While in the vast majority of cases the recalls are voluntarily initiated or agreed-to by a manufacturer or distributor, many of whom likely proactively notified the CFIA of the issue, the number and frequency of derivative recalls actually announced by the Canadian regulator seem to bear little connection with the actual level of risk posed by the product being recalled – a regulatory position that could, at the end of the day – increase, rather than reduce, risk to consumers.

Recall fatigue and consumer confusion

Many recent derivative recalls can be characterized as precautionary – no contamination or actual food safety issue has been identified in the product and no reports of illness or injury have been received.  Some recalls could relate to safety issues inherent in the product as opposed to any manufacturing defect (by way of example, it goes without saying that meat products that are improperly prepared by consumers can present a food safety issue).

One of the dangers with "over-recalling" food products has been highlighted by consumer analysts who have expressed concerns that consumers have begun to ignore recalls or treat recalls with complacency.   In 2009, Rutgers conducted a study in the United States found that only 59 percent of Americans had ever looked for a recalled food item, and 12 percent reported they had eaten a food that they believed had been recalled.2  The same study showed that most Americans had little understanding of the regulatory regime in the United States relating to recalls. 

Comparable research does not appear to have been performed recently in Canada.  Surprisingly, little research appears to have been conducted with regard to the impact that derivative recalls in particular have on consumer responsiveness in either Canada or the United States, though researchers suggest that the risk of "recall fatigue" rises where there are many recalls that demand consumer attention or when consumers believe that the consequences are not serious enough to warrant action.3  Where an actual risk to food safety is identified, recall fatigue raises the very serious question as to the effectiveness of a public recall notices as a reliable mechanism for food safety communications.  In fact, some manufacturers have begun considering broader voluntary recalls (i.e. recalls of foods that bear no risk or connection with the original recall) to avoid subsequent derivative recalls of food that would have been safe to consume, if properly prepared, in the event that the regulator later requests that a recall be conducted because of some, potentially weak, connection to the product that was originally recalled.

Quite apart from the important concern relating to the questionable effectiveness of public notices as a reliable communication tool, where derivative recalls are based on an aggressively precautionary approach, and where no actual risk may actually exist, significant food wastage occurs leading not only to economic loss, but mismanagement of food resources.  The time has come for greater analytical rigour in risk assessment, greater consumer responsibility over food handling and in-home preparation and a review and reassessment of the proliferation of recall announcements that do little to educate consumers on the significance of the recall announcement and may, in fact, be unhelpful from a consumer safety standpoint.