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Most Canadians unaware of recent, major food recalls, survey finds

theglobeandmail.com by Ann Hui, April 5, 2018

The majority of Canadians were unaware of some of the most significant food recalls in recent years, according to a new survey that calls into question the government’s effectiveness in communicating food-safety concerns.

The survey, conducted by Dalhousie University researchers and shared exclusively with The Globe and Mail, demonstrates that the vast majority of consumers significantly underestimate the frequency of recalls in Canada and display a general lack of awareness about a critical component of the country’s food safety system.

“When you think about food safety, I would argue the first thing people think about is food recalls,” the report’s lead author, Sylvain Charlebois, said. “It really is the most effective vehicle for risk communication and I honestly don’t think we’re taking full advantage of it.”

The survey was conducted last month and asked more than 1,000 respondents whether they had heard of three of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s biggest recalls over the past two years.

One of those was the national flour recall of last spring. Sparked by an outbreak of E. coli, it began in March, 2017, and involved at least 17 different brands – including commonly used household ones such as No Name and Robin Hood. It continued for several months and attracted significant media coverage across the country.

Still, only 37 per cent of respondents said they were aware of it.

The researchers found similar results with the 2016 frozen-foods recall – a massive action prompted by Listeria contamination that affected hundreds of different products shipped across Canada, the United States and Mexico. Just 40 per cent of respondents said they had known about it.

And just 28 per cent said they had heard of a hummus recall from November, 2016.

The survey also showed that consumers greatly underestimate the number of recalls that occur each year. More than 82 per cent of respondents believed there were fewer than 100 recalls last year when, in fact, there were 155. And according to the CFIA’s website, the agency generally manages about 350 recalls each year – the most common reason being undeclared allergens.

In an interview, CFIA deputy chief food safety officer Aline Dimitri emphasized the positive findings: Almost 80 per cent of respondents said they had heard something about at least one recall in the past two years.

She added that the agency is focused on how consumers respond to recalls.

“The metric for us is the reaction to the actual recall, and are people still getting sick from [the product],” she said. The CFIA works closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada in such instances, she said, tracking and monitoring cases of food-borne illnesses during and after recalls.

“The fact that people remember it a year later or two years later? That is not, for us, the most valuable metric. Yes, it’s interesting to know. But for us, our goal is the safety of people.”

Still, Dr. Charlebois said the results show the CFIA has a lot of work to do to improve communication.

“When you look at where people are getting information, public agencies aren’t players at all,” he said. Just 8 per cent of respondents said they received recall information directly from the government. The vast majority turned to traditional and social media.

The homepage of the CFIA’s website has information on the latest recalls, but searching for information on older recalls or for details about the process can be arduous.

“It’s tough to navigate through the website within two or three minutes,” Dr. Charlebois said. “That’s what consumers need, and they can’t do that.” 

A comparison of international systems by Britain’s Food Standards Agency last year also pointed to the fact that the CFIA – unlike the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – does not have dedicated social-media feeds for recalls.

The CFIA has a food-focused Twitter account with more than 50,000 followers, but its recall information is mixed with other content such as cooking tips and advice on safe food handling.

In response, CFIA spokesperson Natasha Gauthier pointed to the agency’s food recall e-alerts system, which she said has about 65,000 subscribers. She also pointed to an app created by the federal government that sends out information on alerts on all types of products, including food.

But the government is not solely to blame, Dr. Charlebois said. “Part of it is how consumers don’t seem to take responsibility around food safety as well,” he said. Less than 18 per cent of respondents said they believe consumers are responsible for food safety.

Ms. Dimitri echoed that thought. Despite the best efforts of the government and the food industry, she said, “all of that will be for naught if the consumers are not part of that, as the third leg of the stool, where they actually apply good food safety measures in their own home.”