Tracking down recalled food items to keep consumers safe

March 14, 2010|By Liz F. Kay | liz.kay@baltsun.com

The most useful tool to keep up with a dizzying array of food recalls might be in your wallet.

Food safety advocates are urging retailers to use purchasing records culled from store loyalty cards to notify customers that they have bought a recalled product.

But while they say that could be the best way to reach consumers and prevent illness, opponents raise privacy concerns.

It can be a daunting task tracking food recalls, and debate over the issue continues. The recent recall of hydrolyzed vegetable protein possibly contaminated with a strain of salmonella highlighted the extent of the problem. More than 150 products containing this ingredient - a flavor enhancer widely used in processed foods such as dip mixes, soups and potato chips - were on the recall list, and many more products could be affected.

Thus far, no reports of illnesses have been attributed to this recall, triggered by a food manufacturer that discovered the contamination and reported it to the Food and Drug Administration. But every day, new products are revealed to include this ingredient, causing retailers to scramble and leaving consumers flummoxed.

Consumer advocates say part of the problem is that neither the FDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has authority to require recalled products to be pulled from shelves, although the FDA might gain that power as part of a federal food safety bill under consideration. Manufacturers notify retailers of recalled products, and the stores are responsible for removing them from shelves.

"We also know that frequently doesn't happen," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for the Consumers Union.

Halloran said stores should post signs to warn customers of recalled products on the shelves where those items normally appear because "people tend to buy the same products repeatedly." She also lauded big retail chains such as Toys "R" Us for setting cash register "holds" to block sales of recalled products once consumers bring them to the checkout.

As for customers who bought a recalled item, some retailers such as Costco regularly contact shoppers who purchased affected products by plumbing their store membership records. Craig Wilson, the company's assistant vice president for food safety and quality assurance, said he could reach 870,000 customers in an hour.

"We think our customers are the most important part of our business," he said. "This is an obligation. The real question is why we wouldn't do it."

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used shopper loyalty information to narrow down the list of foods that made people sick, an exercise that recently led to the recall of salami and contaminated black and red pepper.

The CDC obtained permission from seven consumers to review their shopping data. The information helped investigators determine they were sickened by deli products. The investigators treated the details as they would medical data, said Casey Barton Behravesh, a CDC epidemiologist. "We do treat this as highly confidential, just like we would any other information," she said.

Consumers also can take matters into their own hands.

•Recalled products should be discarded or returned to retailers for refunds.

•All food should be cooked according to the package instructions, including directions to let food stand after heating in the microwave.

•Conscientious eaters with computer access also could sign up for e-mail alerts about recalls at foodsafety.gov, but prepare to be inundated with messages.

The recall of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP, presents its own challenges.

Officials believe the risk of illness is low in food items that are cooked during processing or before consumption. And consumers shouldn't worry that foods that have been languishing in their cupboards for many months would be affected by the HVP recall - the contamination was isolated to powder or paste made by Nevada-based Basic Food Flavors Inc. since Sept. 17, Halloran said.

But it might not be readily apparent on the label that a product contains HVP, said Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Sometimes it's described as a "flavor enhancer." Four products recalled by Sparks-based McCormick & Co. referred to it as hydrolyzed corn gluten, wheat gluten or soy protein.

And because this ingredient is so common, it will take weeks to complete a list of affected items, food experts said.

McCormick & Co. recalled packages of French onion dip mix, vegetable dip mix, onion gravy mix and corn bread stuffing mix, all of which contained hydrolyzed vegetable protein manufactured by Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas. For a full list of items being recalled, go to foodsafety.gov.

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