It’s the medium and the message: rapid reliable relevant repeated messages to combat recall fatigue

Until three years ago, Kenneth Maxwell enjoyed Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies so much he ate them three or four times a week. They were easy to prepare, and Maxwell could eat one for lunch and quickly return to work as an electrician.

When cases of salmonella poisoning led the pies’ manufacturer, ConAgra Foods, to issue a product recall in the fall of 2007, Maxwell did not hear about it and continued to eat them. He bought several pot pies about two weeks after the recall was launched, when they should have been pulled from store shelves, and became violently ill, he said.

Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune reports this morning that Maxwell’s experience reflects common problems with food recalls: They routinely fail to recover all of the product they seek and, according to experts, sometimes even leave tainted foods in stores, putting consumers at risk of becoming ill from potentially deadly foodborne pathogens.

If consumers are suffering from recall fatigue, what about retailers who are supposed to get potentially contaminated product off the shelves?

Communications about recalls with both the public and retailers, must be rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant, and that the produce outbreaks of 2006 marked significant changes in how recall stories were being told on Internet-based networking like YouTube, wikipedia, and blogs.

The Tribune story says a spokesman for Jewel-Osco’s corporate parent said relying on the media, posting shelf notices and making sure store employees are prepared to answer customers’ questions all have worked with recalls in the past.

Safeway, the parent of Dominick’s food stores, contacts shoppers directly in some recalls — typically smaller ones, said spokesman Brian Dowling. But in larger recalls, he said the company’s stores rely on other methods to get the word out, such as notices on store shelves and stories in newspapers and on TV and radio.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the Government’s Products Recall app for the Android smartphone at USA.gov website.

And it will be the same boring message. Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message” (that’s him above, right, in a scene from the movie, Annie Hall). With food safety recalls, it’s the medium and the message, if you want to get people’s attention.

The Maxwells said they have not eaten a Banquet pot pie since the recall.