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Dear Valued Consumer: A letter from retailers

Here are three things that you need to know about food recalls. This information is important because it could save your life.

First, a “voluntary” recall is not an optional recall; it is company-initiated. That means that a government agency did not force the company to recall the product. The company is carrying out the recall on its own volition. Please treat all voluntary recalls as mandatory — that is, if you have the recalled product, follow the instructions on how to dispose of or otherwise handle the product.amy-philpottAmy Philpott

Second, FDA requires that recall announcements specify the state to which the product was distributed. By law, a food company must track from whom it received all food products and to whom it sold all food products. This is not necessarily the same as where you purchased the product. In food industry language, “distributed” refers to where the food company shipped the product.

Yes, food companies sometimes ship directly to grocery stores or other points of sale, but more often than not, they ship to retail distribution centers, wholesalers, fulfillment centers, food distributors and others who then resell or reship the food product to other locations. In these cases, the food company does not know where the product goes after it is delivered. Food shipped to a distribution center in one state could be distributed for sale to the consumer in four or five other states that aren’t listed in the recall announcement. Which brings me to my final point.

Pay less attention to the list of shipping locations or stores that sold the product and more attention to the product description. Consumer advocacy groups and product liability lawyers will publicly demand a list of places where the product was sold in order to help the consumer determine whether you purchased or consumed the recalled product. However, for the reason mentioned above, the food company does not typically have that list. Only the companies from which you purchased the product know where it was available for sale and they are exempt from the law that requires traceability — although some do it voluntarily.

Food companies do provide regulators with a list of customers to whom they shipped the product, but knowing that the product was shipped to a distribution center in state “X” isn’t going to help you determine whether the product in your pantry or refrigerator is being recalled.

On the other hand, sometimes food companies do ship directly to grocery stores. So one could argue that at least a partial list of these stores would be helpful to consumers. I would counter that this actually puts more people at risk, and this is why: it would be perfectly understandable for people to look at the list and falsely assume that if the store at which they shop isn’t on it, they don’t need to worry about it. A partial list does more harm because it creates a false sense of security.

The bottom line is, treat all recalls as mandatory and regardless of where you purchase food, check your pantry or refrigerator to determine whether you have a recalled product. If you still can’t determine this, ask your retailer if they sold the product.  When in doubt, throw it out.

Amy Philpott, vice president at Watson Green LLC, a public relations firm in Washington, DC, assists food companies communicate about product recalls. For more information about how to prepare for or manage a product recall, contact Amy at , 202-384-1840.