It's been a rough week in terms of recalls. More than 100 packaged foods—including sandwiches, egg salad, pastas, and even fruit—sold by SunBurst, Fresh Bites, and other private labels at convenience stores and vending machines in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, have been recalled due to detection of Listeria at the plant where the foods were made.
Then, Sam's Club informed customers via e-mail that Simply Right baby wipes sold in their stores since June 30 may be contaminated with B. cepacia, a bacterium that can cause serious complications for babies or people with weakened immune systems.
And one last note of caution if you've been to a Williams-Sonoma in California recently and happened to pick up their jarred Pumpkin Seed Pesto: it may be contaminated with bacteria that causes botulism, according to a release from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (So get rid of it, um, now.)
How are you supposed to keep track of all of these updates that could seriously impact your health?
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"Major recalls will inevitably be highly publicized because they are attractive news stories, so no one has to worry about looking for recalls beyond paying attention to local TV, radio, and newspaper," says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor of mass communications at the University of New Mexico, who has studied recalls.
But the fact is, there are so many recalls and they only become a talked-about story when say, unsafe products continue to be sold or when there's a big controversy (like deaths from faulty car parts) or even criminal charges.
The number of annual recalls varies, but it hovers around 2,000, and some years is as high as 2,500, Gibson says. That's almost 7 per day. Yet, as a 2012 report from USA Today points out, this may lead to a sort of "recall fatigue," meaning we hear about so many problem goods that we begin to ignore the warnings. In fact, child product safety recalls have a dismal response rate of just 10%, according to a January 2014 report from Kids In Danger, a children's safety and recall awareness organization.
Another issue is that there are so many different regulatory agencies keeping an eye on all things we buy. For example, the FDA is responsible for most foods, but meat, poultry and eggs are the U.S. Department of Agriculture's job. And sometimes, the manufacturer issues a "voluntary" recall without input from a regulatory agency at all! It's nearly impossible to keep track of every single one—but the good thing is, it's usually not necessary.
Maybe you don't live in California (or shop at Williams-Sonoma), or you don't have a baby, or you haven't been desperate enough to buy egg salad from a vending machine lately. But what if you have? How can you quickly and easily find out about the recalls most likely to affect you and your stuff?
Here are some targeted resources.
If you want to know if there’s gross stuff in your food…
Get alerts from FoodSafety.gov. You can sign up for the Foodsafety.gov's automatic recall alerts, which combine both the FDA and USDA notifications alerts so you don't have to check both pages or wait for the local news to report it. Emails will arrive in your email inbox at the end of every day.
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If you’ve got kids…
Download the Recalls Pro App. Anyone can use this one, but it's especially useful for moms because kids require all sorts of new stuff at every age: cribs, formula, car seats, toys, and so on. (It's a lot for the FDA to keep track of, much less you, who has parenting to do.) That's where the Recalls Pro app (free for first 10 products; 2.99 for 80 products, iTunes) comes in. Download it to your iPhone or iPad, and scan barcodes after you buy stuff, from Bumbo Baby Seats to toys to grocery items. If there's a recall matching anything on your "watch list" in the future, you'll get a notification.
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If you or a loved one have serious food allergies…
Sign up for the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) Alerts. Become a member of FARE ($40 for one year, foodallergy.org) and they'll alert you to any recall regarding foods that are mislabeled as say, nut-free, or if there's contamination somewhere in the production process. The alerts cover the top 8 food allergens (milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts), as issued by the FDA, the USDA, or the manufacturer. If you have a life-threatening food allergy, the membership is worth the money. It also gives you access to FARE's Ingredient Notices, which will keep you posted if say, a previously nut-free product changes the recipe to include the allergen.
If you’re going to buy a car…
Check SaferCar.gov. When you're in the market for a used car, everyone knows it's a good idea to do some research. Maybe the previous owner wasn't so informed about safety recalls, or a car dealer's trying to rip you off. The SaferCar.gov web site from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allows you to search by make, model, and year for any recall alerts. You can also use their VIN search to look up a specific used car by vehicle identification number to make sure it's been repaired as part of a recall.
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If you play sports or are the type to own an ATV…
Get updates from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC has a few newsletters to choose from, but it happens to be the only source with dedicated alerts for people who want updates on recalls affecting sports, recreation, and outdoor products.