The DNA of Recall Crisis Management

Television shows highlighting the techniques and intricacies utilized in criminal investigations are gaining a foothold among America’s television viewers.

Popular shows such as Law & Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, command a significant following. Each show offers a captivating crime in the opening minutes to gain your attention, followed by devoting the majority of time to the myriad tactics, tests, and techniques used to determine “whodunit.”

You may wonder what these shows and crisis management have in common. Answer: Both may be positioned to utilize the latest forensic advancements to “solve” their mystery. Most of us wish that our real-world crises could be successfully resolved within 60 minutes as is each CSI episode. Alas, in the world of product recalls, investigation and resolution tend to take much longer. Yet, the food industry may benefit from watching an episode or two of a popular criminal investigation show to appreciate the benefits that forensics brings to investigating and solving an apparent crisis.

This article provides insight into various causes of a crisis, and offers some examples of how cutting edge developments in food forensics may greatly assist you in successfully managing your company’s crisis.

What Constitutes a Crisis?

If you are in the food business, you face the potential for a food-related crisis, such as a recall, at any time. This reality is difficult to ignore when food-related product recalls are communicated almost daily through press releases issued by the recalling companies or the governing regulatory agency. In your day-to-day operations, you may become aware of a suspect product prompting the need for a recall from a variety of sources. Suppliers, consumers, distributors, or state or federal regulatory agencies all may report knowledge of a potential issue.

Typically, contamination of some sort is the most prevalent cause of a potential recall. Such contamination may involve a foodborne illness. Types of contamination include:

  • Physical (glass, metal, plastic, wood, stones)
  • Microbiological (bacteria, bacterial and fungal toxins)
  • Chemical (undeclared allergens, pesticides, solvents, poisons, cleaning materials)

Other triggers of a potential recall include mislabeling (not involving undeclared allergens) and economic fraud.

If it appears you may have a potential recall on your hands, timing is of the essence in conducting a thorough, detailed investigation to determine how the contamination may have occurred. Generally, there are three major ways in which a foreign object or other contaminant could enter a product, whether accidental or willful. They are:

  • During manufacturing (from raw materials, storage, manufacturing mishandling, employee tampering)
  • During distribution (from improper storage, tampering with the product and returning it to the store shelf for later purchase)
  • After purchase1 (improper storage by store [e.g. temperature in freezer case set too low]; false claims where consumers tampered with the product)

The key to your company’s ability to successfully mitigate risk associated with alleged contamination claims may lie in credibly determining that your company was not the source of the contamination. Where do you turn to obtain such evidence? Your internal food scientists may be able to perform sufficient tests to determine the source of the contaminant. However, in high exposure situations, such as litigated cases, you may desire a third-party, accredited laboratory to substantiate your results in order to provide the best possible position for your company. Some third party laboratories have significantly enhanced testing techniques to offer clients innovative, cutting edge methodologies that would rival those employed in the best of criminal investigation shows.

Advantages of Forensic Testing

Food forensics utilizes many of the same scientific methodologies used in other forensic disciplines, such as those applied in criminal investigations. Food forensics may benefit the industry most greatly in the area of root cause determination.

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