Food recalls often unpublicized


The Maui Sweet Onion potato chips were “sick,” and so was the soup, the dip, the cheese spread and Thai peanut tofu.

Grocery items, more than 150 pulled from supermarket shelves since the beginning of March, have been recalled for containing a salmonella-tainted food flavoring. It’s the latest in a string of recalls launched with minimal public notification, though food experts say it could also be the largest.

Congress is asking if supermarkets should be better at notifying customers of food recalls by tapping data collected through store loyalty cards and store club memberships. Food safety advocates say stores with shopper cards certainly could.

“All of them have the ability to track people by purchases,” said Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-borne illness and publisher of Food Safety News, an online journal. “The question is whether they want to use it for good or evil, whether they want to find out if we buy a lot of Twinkies or if they want to let us know that we bought a poisonous product.”

Costco Wholesale can and does use its card data to notify customers of product recalls. In 2009, when a salmonella scare prompted the recall of hundreds of items containing peanut butter, the store personally notified thousands of customers who bought affected nutrition bars. The wholesale grocer said it could contact several hundred thousand customers in less than a day.

Supervalu-owned Albertsons has said that using its Preferred Savings Card data to contact customers about purchases would be too invasive, though that might be changing.

“Supervalu is currently looking at the feasibility of notifying customers about recalls through our loyalty card program,” said Lilia Rodriguez, Albertsons public-affairs manager.

Even the Good Earth Market has the ability to track purchases by people with membership cards.

“If you’re a member, I can go back 180 days and look at everything you bought. I can print a list,” said Perry McNeese, Good Earth’s general manager.

The store hasn’t used the technology in relation to a recall, McNeese said. Recalled food typically is pulled from the shelf, returned or destroyed depending on the preference of the company initiating the recall, which is what stores big and small do normally.

It isn’t uncommon to get three to six recall notices a week from Good Earth’s food suppliers, McNeese said. Sometimes Good Earth has the products being recalled, other times it doesn’t. The latest food recall missed Good Earth because the suspect flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, is one the health food store avoids.

The enhancer known as HVP is one of those ingredients listed in small type on the back of thousands of products. It’s a dark, amino-acid-rich syrup made by boiling soybeans or grains such as wheat or corn in chemicals. One of its elements, glutamic acid, is a key ingredient in monosodium glutamate, known as MSG.

By using HVP, food companies get the same flavor-enhancing properties as MSG without having to list the socially unpopular substance on their labels.

The list of products made with HVP is long. Chips, soups, dips, dressings, cheese spreads, frozen dinners and dry packaged sauce mixes all include HVP. The ingredient manufacturer, Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas, was one of only three U.S. suppliers of the ingredient, which is used in thousands of products.

The list of separate products that manufacturers have chosen to recall includes 159 separate items currently, items ranging from Kettle Style Sweet Maui Onion potato chips to Culinary Circle spinach dip.

Albertsons pulled 42 different packaged items from its shelves locally, Rodriguez said. For most serious recalls, the store posts a public notice on the shelf of the pulled product for one week.

In addition, Albertsons uses a front-end notification system that blocks the sale of any recalled item by locking out the product code, Rodriguez said. “So when a consumer attempts to purchase a recalled item, the sale will ring up as “Recalled product — do not sell.”

Mostly, recalls are taken care of without the public knowing. Records show there have been several recalls posted by the federal government in recent months in which the public wasn’t notified.

In January, 124 tons of beef products connected with a multistate E. coli outbreak forced Fired Up Inc., owner of Johnny Carino’s Italian food chain, to quietly throw out blade-tenderized steak. Other mostly chain restaurants did the same, but were never identified. Fired Up was identified because beef packaged specifically for its restaurants was put in distinctive boxes.

A Rhode Island company, Daniele International, recalled more than 1.2 million pounds of ready-to-eat sausage because of salmonella. The products were pulled locally from Albertsons, Walmart and Costco, but also at smaller grocery stores in Missoula and Bozeman. The recall started in January. The list of affected stores continues to be updated.

“At some point, the real problem is having contaminated food on the market,” Marler said.

Food recalls typically start after people get sick, or after a company receives notice from a lab that its food has tested positive for contaminants, Marler said. It’s not uncommon for the tainted food to continue being shipped for sale until the test comes back. Less often, a food manufacturer will test an ingredient bought from a supplier and contact the government over a bad result.

The Consumer Recall Notification Act introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would change the notification process. Food companies would have to notify restaurants and retailers of contaminated food within 24 hours. The federal government would have to extend its notifications far down the food chain, to clinics and emergency rooms.