How Consumers Respond to a Recall

When a food is recalled for safety reasons, consumers do take note. But products that are innocent bystanders can easily be hurt as people mistake the precise dimension of the recall. That’s one lesson to draw from polling last month for the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, focusing on the recent recall of peanut-based products.

Nearly all the adults surveyed (93 percent) said they’d heard or read about the recall. But 25 percent of these recall-aware respondents believed – mistakenly — that major national brands of peanut butter had been among the products being pulled back. Fifteen percent of all respondents said they have stopped eating jarred peanut butter. Cutting in the opposite direction, fewer than half of those who knew of the recall were aware that it included snack bars (49 percent realized this), cakes, brownies and cookies (45 percent), pet treats (43 percent), candy (39 percent), ice cream (27 percent) and jars or cans of dry-roasted peanuts (23 percent).

Another section of the survey found consumers taking a broadly peanutphobic stance. Among those who’d heard about the recall, 15 percent said they stopped eating all peanut products; 25 percent discarded foods they had at home that “might” be on the recall list; 22 percent stopped ordering restaurant foods that contain peanuts. Just 28 percent said they ceased eating only the specific products they had heard were listed in the recall.

Lurking behind consumers’ jitters in this peanut episode is a broader lack of confidence. Just 5 percent of respondents expressed “a great deal” of confidence in food manufacturers to keep food safe, with another 27 percent voicing “a good amount.” Forty-two percent had “only some” confidence and 25 percent “very little.” The respondents had a somewhat higher opinion of grocery stores in this regard: 13 percent expressed “a great deal” and 35 percent “a good amount” of confidence that stores keep food safe. Still, 35 percent said they have “only some” and 17 percent “very little” confidence on that front.

Those lackluster numbers dovetail with the responses when people were asked how worried they are “about becoming infected or getting ill from the food you eat.” Nine percent said they’re “very worried,” 24 percent “somewhat,” 34 percent “not too” and 33 percent “not at all.”