Food safety recalls – what more could be done?

Many of us consider the food we buy to be safe. But with so many commercially available food products, manufacturing processes can involve complex supply chains and a network of international suppliers.

Inevitably, unsafe food products will slip through the net and be sold to consumers. So it’s important to have a robust system in place to limit the damage that happens when this happens.

When a potentially harmful food product is discovered, food business operators (FBOs) must report the incident to their local authorities. A report can then be submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to coordinate the recall process nationwide to ensure consumers are protected from the unsafe product.

The FSA issues recall notices, and the FBO and the appropriate local authority work with the FSA and retailers to ensure consumers are advised to return or dispose of the affected product. Food alerts are posted on the FSA’s website, and retailers and local authorities are expected to take necessary steps such as contacting consumers directly and announcing the recall.

Two recent cases from 2021 highlighted some of the problems with the food recall system as it currently operates in the UK. One issue is the effective communication of food recalls, and another is the lack of transparency once a recall has been issued.

Feline pancytopenia

Animal feed is subject to the same recall system as food made for human consumption, and a recent outbreak of the deadly Feline Pancytopenia disease has led to the recall of some dry cat food products suspected of being linked to the outbreak. Some consumers were outraged by the failure to take action by the authorities and some retailers to ensure that the recalled products were removed from circulation.

Sainsbury, whose dry cat food brand was affected by a recall recall, came under fire especially when email notifications were sent to some consumers more than a month after the FSA issued a food safety alert.

Leigh Day has been contacted by more than 100 cat owners affected by the Pancytopenia scandal, and the feedback we’ve received is that many pet owners learned about the recall not by seeing notices circulated by retailers or the FSA, but through awareness on social media campaigns and through friends and family.

FSA guidelines for faith-based organizations and food enforcement authorities encourage the use of in-store point-of-sale notices, postings on fixed-service/retailer websites, direct contact with individual consumers who have signed up for loyalty card schemes and dissemination of notifications via social media.

Retailers of all industries, including supermarket chains, are investing significant resources in data-driven marketing. Available data from social media platforms and online consumer footprints give advertisers much more insight into who is buying their products than was the case 10 years ago. Consumers who have purchased a recalled product may ask themselves why, when retailers have the ability to target ads to them based on age, location, and purchase history, the same possibility does not always appear to extend to product recalls.

The UK’s food recall system is meant to be a collaborative effort between the Financial Services Authority, local authorities, faith-based organizations and retailers. However, the FSA and local authorities have limited reach in terms of public engagement capabilities and social media presence compared to major retailers and large customary organizations. Companies with massive advertising operations and access to an unprecedented amount of consumer data can in some cases be too slow to inform their customers that a product they purchased has been recalled, suggesting that more can be done to spread life-saving food safety information. .

Consumers cannot be expected to regularly monitor the FSA’s website for food safety alerts, and so a more proactive approach to advertising food recalls is required. Research conducted by the FSA in 2018 indicates that they are well aware of the difficulties they face with public participation, and realistically it is the retailers who will in most cases have the ability and experience to do so.

anonymous dates

In April 2021, Sainsbury’s issued a product recall of its “Taste the Difference” Medjool Dates on the grounds that it “may be contaminated with hepatitis A”. Leigh Day represents a number of individuals who ate these dates in early 2021 and went on to develop hepatitis A, a virus that causes severe disease and impaired liver function.

Since the product recall notice was published in April 2021, consumers have had no additional information from the Financial Services Authority, Public Health England or Sainsbury’s about how this dangerous virus entered the food chain.

FSA guidelines advise belief-based organizations to perform a root cause analysis to determine why the summons occurred, however there is no requirement that this information be made public. The food recall notice should not be the end of it, but from our customers’ perspective, there has been no further information publicly available since the recall was issued in April 2021. Many consumers, including our customers, will have serious questions about an incident like this: How did this happen? And what is being done to ensure that it does not happen again?

Unfortunately, when a food recall occurs, these questions are often left unanswered.


For the public to have confidence in our food safety system, it is essential that they are properly informed when a product recall is announced, and that they are reassured that lessons have been learned and steps taken. However, the current system is limited in its ability to do so.

Government authorities, as well as brands and retailers, must realize that public participation must be a cornerstone of any consumer protection regime.


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