Recall These Thoughts

Multi-state salmonella outbreak but no recall?

The Food Poison Journal asks “68 Sickened by Salmonella Sprouts, but No Recall?”. This is an interesting question. At first glance, I was dismayed too. Why on earth, with nearly 70 cases, wouldn’t Wonton foods recall their bean sprouts. 

After some meditation the answer was reasonably straightforward and actually makes some degree of sense. The FDA has stated that Wonton Foods Inc. has ceased production and distribution of their bean sprouts after it was notified of the contaminant. A recall would entail collecting all of the already-distributed sprouts along the distribution chain and returning them to Wonton foods (or a third-party logistics company) in order to prevent them from being sold to consumers, restaurants, or processors. But the recall process can take a while. A few hours, at least, just for the information to propagate through the distribution chain, many more hours for people in control of the sprouts to actually respond. Realistically this is probably at least a 24 hours process. 

The shelf life of bean sprouts doesn’t extend too far beyond a couple of days. 

Old sprouts already on trucks, in stores, or in consumer’s homes are likely to be used or spoil by the time the recall was initiated and acted upon. The damage of those sprouts is already done, or is too late to be stopped (unlike frozen burgers or a brick of cheese, sprouts will not linger in a consumer’s fridge for weeks). By stopping production and distribution of new beans, they will not be replaced with a fresh batch of contaminated sprouts. Unlike a can of oysters or a steak, which could be on the shelf for extended periods of time, the currently distributed batch of sprouts will disappear on their own within a few days. To add a recall on top of a cessation of production isn’t likely to meaningfully reduce the number of cases or the amount of harm. 

Moreover, liability for damages does not change when a company initiates a recall. Wonton Foods Inc. are equally liable for damages whether they recall or not. All that recalls can do, from a legal standpoint, is reduce the potential number of complainants. If a recall isn’t going to dramatically reduce the number of illnesses there is little incentive for Wonton Foods Inc. to conduct a recall, which would be an expensive undertaking for minimal or zero concrete benefit. 

That being said, even if a recall isn’t terribly effective from legal and public health perspectives, it can have significant public relations benefits. Currently Wonton Foods Inc.’s silence on the issue, and their choice to not recall their product appears irresponsible, or reckless, or as if they are in denial. From a public relations standpoint, owning up to the problem immediately, then demonstrating that you care or want to set things right by initiating a recall, even if that recall is  objectively frivolous, can come across much more positively to the public than the “lips sealed” approach that Wonton Foods Inc. seems to have adopted. 

While recalling might have been good from a PR standpoint and tempered the ire of lawyers and their complainants, it would have had no impact on the company’s liability and is unlikely to have reduced the extent to the outbreak.