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Thanksgiving eve food recalls raise questions about timing

Ocean Spray recalled certain lots of packaged and bulk Craisins the night before Thanksgiving. The Food and Drug Administration issued a press release on Friday.

Recalls of two iconic holiday foods on the night before Thanksgiving, the most feast-centric celebration of the year, are raising eyebrows about the way some companies notify consumers about problems.

Ocean Spray, a top cranberry producer, recalled certain lots of packaged and bulk Craisins, the sweetened dried fruit, because they may have contained hairlike metal fragments.

Giant Eagle Inc., a Pittsburgh-based grocery chain, also recalled all Valu Time brand canned pumpkin purchased on or after Aug. 30, 2011 and all Food Club brand canned pumpkin purchased on or after Oct. 28, 2011, because of "imperfections in can packaging," spokesman Robert Borella said.

Both recalls were launched on Wednesday evening, Nov. 23, just as families across America were finalizing menus and finishing shopping for their holiday feasts.

“After 20 years of doing this, businesses and governments always want to get bad news out when people will least notice,” said Bill Marler, a leading food safety lawyer based in Seattle.

Ocean Spray notified the Food and Drug Administration, which issued a press release on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Because there was no health risk, Giant Eagle officials didn't notify the FDA, Borella said. But the agency became aware of the recall and issued a press release anyway on Monday night.

In both cases, company officials won't concede there was anything odd about the timing. Ocean Spray spokesman John Isaf said only that the firm notified the FDA on Wednesday, when it launched the recall. Giant Eagle spokesman Borella said the company only became aware of the product problems on Wednesday and took quick action to notify regional media and consumers directly.

Giant Eagle even offered families the chance to return to stores for replacement pies or pie ingredients before the holiday dinner -- the next day. Ocean Spray said folks who saved the UPC code and Best Buy date could receive a refund.

FDA officials say nothing prohibits companies from waiting until the last minute before a busy holiday to recall foods consumers likely already have purchased.

“A firm may decide of its own volition and under any circumstances to remove or correct a distributed product,” said FDA spokesman Doug Karas, quoting the rules.

If there are potential health risks with the food, the firm is asked to notify FDA immediately, Karas added. They're required to submit reports within 24 hours of learning of the problem to the FDA's Reportable Food Registry.

It should be no surprise that companies would try to announce recalls when consumers might be otherwise occupied, said Marler, and, to be fair, holiday pressures could have contributed to the timing.

“It is certainly possible that holiday time off got in the way of alerting the public to problems,” he said.

Whether it was accidental or intentional, however, it’s not much comfort to families who may have served recalled food at their Thanksgiving dinners.

“Either alternative does not give the consumer much faith in the system, I am afraid,” Marler added.

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