In managing any crisis situation, it is critical that all available resources be brought to bear. This is particularly true in the food industry, where a product recall may be addressing an eminent threat to human health. For greatest efficacy, a recall management plan must enable a rapid and comprehensive response; however, cobbling together such a plan has become increasingly burdensome as food products—and the sources of those products—continue to diversify. These are the drivers behind the advent of the Rapid Recall Exchange (RRE).
Launched in late 2009, the RRE—developed by the Food Marketing Institute and GS1 US and supported by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Grocers Association—is an online service that is designed to accelerate food product recalls and withdrawals. The functionality of the service is a direct result of input from industry stakeholders.
“Starting around 2007, our members started asking that we step up our involvement as it relates to recalls,” said Brian Lynch, senior director of business and industry development at GMA. To gain a greater understanding of the particular nature of their member’s concerns, the GMA conducted a number of surveys, with responses from retailers and manufacturers alike, resulting in a consensus of the problem. “They specifically asked for our help in streamlining and making the recall process more efficient,” said Lynch.
GMA members reported that the increasingly complex supply chain was needlessly draining time and money. In 2009, for example, in testimony before the House Small Business Subcommittee on Regulations and Healthcare, Mike Ambrosio, vice president of quality assurance for the Wakefern Food Corp., said that in the last fiscal year prior to his testimony, Wakefern experienced 214 recalls, including 27 Class 1 recalls and 43 pharmacy recalls, encompassing 218 stock-keeping units (UPC codes). “The process took an average of 10 hours per product recalled,” he said, racking up a grand total of 2,140 expensive hours of labor.
The Birth of the Rapid Recall Exchange
In brief, the RRE is a web-based portal for the exchange of information between food retailers and manufacturers that is designed to elicit specific, comprehensive information from a supplier regarding a given product for recall—information that is then rapidly disseminated to any and all recall stakeholders. Communication between stakeholders is standardized, and the receipt of information is verifiable.
All aspects of the program are designed to meet the specific needs of the user. “In Class I situations, the way the system is set up is as a shotgun approach—a mass e-mail,” explained Lynch. “For Class II and III situations, [RRE] functionality allows initiators and manufacturers to select the specific trading partners that are known to have received a defective product.”
The RRE offers a robust way of satisfying the FDA’s required effectiveness checks. By verifying that an authorized recipient has opened an e-mail alert or has checked the system, the portal assures the recalling organization that the retailer has been notified.
One of the impediments to effectively populating RRE’s database of industry contacts is determining just who exactly, within a given company, needs to be notified. “In the user authentication process, there is a big challenge to ensuring that [an RRE subscriber] has the right contact within each trading partner company to reach out to,” he said. Further, not only does it have to be the right person, but it also has to be the right person’s correct e-mail and current phone number.
All of this ties into a key facet of RRE: the ability to verify. Speaking to this point, Hilary Thesmar, PhD, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, said, “With an e-mail or with a phone call, it’s difficult to verify that a message was actually received. What this portal does is that when that e-mail is opened, or when the system is checked, there is a message sent back to the supplier saying that this specific person at the company read the message, so there’s a record that the message was received, and that counts as verification.” This component of the RRE is a robust way of satisfying the FDA’s required effectiveness checks.