The Future of Food Recalls: Giving the Public a Voice

While pursuing my MFA, I worked with two University of North Texas professors, Clinton Carlson and Whitney Peake, to investigate the food recall communication process, how much everyday grocery shoppers understood about it, and how design might play a role in helping communicate this information better. Over the course of several months in 2013, we conducted several online surveys and participatory design workshops with a wide demographic of local grocery-store shoppers.

In June of 2014, Clinton Carlson and I traveled to Milan, Italy to present our research at the 5th STS Italia Conference: A Matter of Design.

Clinton Carlson, Assistant Professor, University of North Texas; Jeff Joiner, MFA Candidate, University of North Texas; and Whitney Peake, Assistant Professor, University of North Texas.

Design, human factors, food recalls, human-centered, user-centered, communication design, complex information, public communication, exploratory research

During the last decade, the number of food recalls and food safety alerts in the United States has increased significantly. For example, during the last three months of 2012 there were an average of six recalls per day (Gelski, 2013). However, this information is not being effectively communicated to consumers. A recent study indicated that although consumers consider food safety an important issue, the average American is aware of only 2 to 5 recalls per year (Peake et al, 2013).

Traditionally, both of the federal organizations responsible for food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have relied primarily on press releases, online postings, and email recall alerts to notify the American public. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 (48 million) Americans are still being affected with foodborne illness annually. Of those affected, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. It is also estimated that foodborne illnesses costs the US $152 billion annually (Scharff, 2010). Growth in global food sources, increasing concern over genetically modified products, and packaging variations are also reasons to consider how food recall information might be communicated more effectively (Opara, 2003).

In a 2004 report to Congress, the US Government Accountability Office identified the need for improved traceability, efficiency, data management, and consumer notification within the food industry and FDA/USDA (GAO). Existing research, literature, and industry initiatives have focused on improving traceability or data management. Few have looked with any depth at the issue of improving consumer notification. And there is little evidence of any efforts to engage the public in the design process.

An exploratory survey conducted by the authors in early 2013 found that although American consumers are mostly unaware of the rising number of food recalls, they expressed a desire for more information regarding recalls, as well as for alternate sources of recall information. In order to understand more about how this might be accomplished, the authors conducted a series of participatory design workshops with small groups of consumers. These interactions revealed a number of insights, including:

• A preference for placement of recall information near where a recalled product had been sold
• An interest in Color-coded recall notifications
• An interest in ‘alert’ posts on social media or push notifications on their phone
• Concern that wording of in-store food recalls be written so as to not alarm shoppers

Based on these and other results, improvements to the communication of food safety notifications will be discussed.

As designers and design researchers, we have a responsibility to seek out, identify, and respond to these largely “invisible” calls for improved public communication. By utilizing human-centered, participatory design approaches in the early stages of designing that system we are able to do so in a way that gives the public a voice.


View and download the presentation here (and please cite accordingly).