Food Safety Can’t Be a Premium

Columns - Consumer Perspectives

With news of the Family Dollar recall, Darin Detwiler writes that all consumers have a right to equal access of safe food.

April 4, 2022

Darin Detwiler is Associate Professor, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University

Food safety culture and regulatory compliance should support all consumers being provided with an equal access to safe food. To achieve this, we must hold all food companies and retailers to a minimum standard of food safety.

Simply put, food safety should not be a premium.

Consumers may wish to spend more on food based on certifications, such as kosher or organic, or for foods that come from brand name labels or high-end retailers. However, consumers should not need to choose between one source or another when it comes to putting safe food on the family table.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Feb. 18 announcement, “Family Dollar Stores Issues Voluntary Recall of Certain FDA-Regulated Products in Six States Including Drugs, Devices, Cosmetics, Foods,” describes a “voluntary retail level product recall” of items that were stored and shipped to 404 stores across six states over the past 13 months due to unsanitary conditions at a company distribution center.

The FDA announcement includes a note about Family Dollar describing the company as, “Helping families save on the items they need with everyday low prices.”

Helping families save money on their food items cannot be accomplished through lack of food safety and sanitation standards. In an interview with USA Today, company spokesperson Kayleigh Campbell stated: “We take situations like this very seriously and are committed to providing safe and quality products to our customer.”

This commitment from the company is contradicted by FDA investigation findings detailed in the Feb. 18 news release, “FDA Alerts the Public to Potentially Contaminated Products from Family Dollar Stores in Six States.” Here, the agency described conditions observed during their inspection of the company’s distribution center as having included “… live rodents, dead rodents in various states of decay, rodent feces and urine, evidence of gnawing, nesting and rodent odors throughout the facility, dead birds and bird droppings and products stored in conditions that did not protect against contamination.”

In addition to the recovery of more than 1,100 dead rodents after fumigation in January 2022, FDA found records indicating the collection of more than 2,300 rodents during a six-month period in 2021 demonstrating, according to FDA, “a history of infestation.”

With news of the Family Dollar recall, Darin Detwiler writes that all consumers have a right to equal access of safe food.

In a newspaper interview, Judy McMeekin, FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, stated that “No one should be subjected to products stored in the kind of unacceptable conditions that we found in this Family Dollar distribution facility.”

So how can consumers go forward and not associate low cost with “unacceptable conditions,” a “history of infestation” or any company that cannot be 100% committed to providing safe and quality products to their customers?

I predict that Family Dollar will communicate that they will place a new person in charge of sanitation and inspection at their distribution centers across the country, that they will review and revise all protocols and procedures related to sanitary conditions and FDA safety compliance, that they will invest some amount of money in independent audits and that they will engage in new training for their employees.

This is the same page out of crisis management playbooks we see time after time in these situations.

Reform follows crisis; thus reform follows consumers becoming harmed. While the company “is not aware of any consumer complaints or reports of illness related to this recall,” they were also not aware of thousands of rodents around their products. (Or they were aware of the infestation and took no action.)

Any customers directly harmed by this enormous failure may not have known enough information or had the resources to report any harm. However, all of us are indirectly harmed by evidence that for some companies — even during a pandemic when sanitation and safety are on everyone’s priority lists — lowered costs are achieved through lowered levels of regulatory compliance.

Food safety should be a basic foundation for all stakeholders, not a premium enjoyed by those who can afford it.