Texas-based ice cream maker Blue Bell Creameries made national headlines in 2015 after several consumers contracted listeria from the company’s ice cream products. Following reports that the contamination caused at least three deaths, Blue Bell recalled some products. It later issued a second recall of all its products.
The Blue Bell situation raises questions about manufacturer liability. In this blog, we’ll discuss how several aspects of food recalls affect product liability lawsuits.
Why Is the Food Recalled?
Food recalls happen when consumers become ill or experience other negative effects after eating or drinking an unsafe food product. The reason for the recall indicates, to some extent, how liable the company is for incidents that occurred.
Food recalls happen for three primary reasons:
- The manufacturer designed the product without realizing its safety risks. For example, the candy “Wonder Ball” contained toys inside a chocolate shell and posed a choking hazard to children.
- The manufacturer produced the product in unsafe conditions. Blue Bell’s massive recall occurred because employees realized machines at several plants had listeria contamination. Another example is the Westland/Hallmark beef recall in 2008. Evidence showed that cows were raised in conditions which could have led to diseased beef.
- The manufacturer used improper, inaccurate, or insufficient labeling or marketing. A recent example took place after the New York State surgeon general found that many herbal supplements didn’t contain the listed ingredients. Some products even contained unlisted allergens.
Who Initiated the Recall?
When it becomes apparent that a recall should happen, the food manufacturer has the choice to voluntarily issue that recall. Although recalls cost a lot, they are in the best interest of both the company and the consumer. A recall reduces chances that more people will receive harm from unsafe foods, which protects the company from growing backlash if the problem spreads.
In some cases of unsafe food, the manufacturer fails to take action, so the USDA or FDA may step in and demand a recall. That’s what happened in 2012 when the FDA shut down New Mexico’s Sunland peanut butter factory after a salmonella outbreak.
No matter who issues the recall, the manufacturer remains liable. Still, it looks better if a company voluntarily admits its mistakes and shows sorrow for the situation. A remorseful attitude can affect liability settlements.
How Quickly Did Manufacturer Take Action?
Manufacturers of recalled food can also demonstrate a desire to take responsibility by acting as fast as possible when problems come to light. Quick action reduces likelihood of more incidents and lets the company begin to rectify the problem. Again, the manufacturer remains liable, but their quick action may reduce the damages they have to pay to injured parties.
How Severe Were the Incidents?
Damages awarded to victims of unsafe food products vary depending on the risks of buying and consuming the product. A poorly labeled cereal box probably poses less severe risks than beef contaminated with E. coli. Consequently, the cereal case merits smaller damages than the beef case.
Of course, an unsafe food product may lead to non-health-related consequences too, such as lost wages, emotional harm, or even wrongful death. Because assessing damages is a complex process, food recall victims should consult a lawyer.
Was the Problem Preventable?
Many food-related problems and the resulting recalls are easily preventable. The manufacturer could have prevented the incidents if they had:
- Performed more or better safety tests
- Complied with government safety standards
- Listed warnings on packaging and in marketing campaigns
- In these cases, the manufacturer’s inaction led to someone else becoming sick or even dying. Proving preventability may lead to larger settlements or awarded damages.
As you can tell, food recalls and the incidents associated with them are complex. If you’re the victim of an unsafe food product, consult a lawyer as soon as possible. You can also stay informed about recent food recalls at foodsafety.gov (http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/recent/index.html).