While most food manufacturers and resellers do everything they can to keep all products 100 percent safe for consumers, unfortunately issues do crop up more often than anyone would like. In fact, the FDA recalls close to 100 million units of food every quarter.
When you’re new to working in the food industry, it is important to be aware of how food recalls come about, and why, and what steps need to be taken if items are found to be harmful.
How Recalls Come About
In the U.S., the FDA is the department responsible for regulating and imposing safety standards on the majority of the nation’s food supply (around 80 percent), for both domestic and imported foods.
The government office also oversees the safety of pet foods. The remaining percentage of food items, in particular meat, poultry, and some egg products, are overseen by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the USDA.
These two agencies typically find out about an issue with the food supply because a manufacturer or distributor becomes aware of a safety issue and contacts them directly; or because an inspection of a manufacturing facility or importing business by one of the departments reveals a cause for concern.
In addition, the FDA or FSIS tend to conduct various sampling programs, and one of these can result in a particular food item or manufacturer failing a test. Alternatively, an individual state health department (or multiple offices around the country) could contact the CDC about illnesses caused by specific food products. If this happens, the FDA or FSIS would be alerted to the problem by the CDC.
Recalls can be classified in three different ways, according to the potential seriousness of the case. The FDA and FSIS use the same classifications, namely:
- Class I recalls—for situations in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the affected food will cause health issues or death;
- Class II recalls— for situations in which there is a remote possibility of adverse health consequences if the food is eaten; and
- Class III recalls—for situations in which eating the affected food won’t cause any adverse health problems.
For most food recall cases, the recalls are voluntary and initiated by the particular manufacturer or distributor involved. Other times, when one of the government agencies asks for a recall, the firm that manufactures the item will be responsible for taking action to get the product off shelves. If this business does not respond to requests from the FDA or FSIS to instigate a recall, legal action can be taken.
In accordance to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA has the authority to shut down operations at food production facilities if the department believes there is a serious threat to public health involved. In September 2012, the agency exercised this authority for the first time by shutting down a peanut-processing factory owned by Sunland Inc. This came about because a Salmonella contamination was discovered.
How Recalls Work
When a food manufacturer or distributor voluntarily initiates a recall, the FDA or FSIS will be called upon to evaluate the potential severity of the recall. The relevant agency will need to ensure that the company involved makes reasonable efforts to correct the issue and/or removes the affected products from shelves.
Furthermore, when the situation requires widespread public awareness, in a short amount of time, the regulatory bodies will seek publicity about the case via the media. Most of the time, recalls are simply listed online on the agency websites so that consumers, resellers, and other interested parties can read the information as needed.
When a recall is initiated, the company involved will need to submit its strategy for handling the process to the FDA or FSIS for review. The plan will need to cover things like the depth of the recall (for instance, if it will affect just wholesalers and/or retailers, or consumers too); what the proposed checks are to ensure effectiveness of the recall; and the type of press release that the company wishes to issue.
Businesses do not need to wait for strategies to be approved for them to be executed; plans can be followed out straight away, even if they’re under review. However, if the agency involved in the matter feels that corrections are required to the strategy, this can prompt the manufacturer or distributor to make necessary changes.
To terminate a recall, food manufacturers or distributors can request permission to do so in writing to the relevant regulatory body, or simply wait for the agency to determine when the appropriate time is. Products are typically classified as safe again once a decent amount of the offending product has been recovered or corrected.
Common Causes of Recalls
There is a wide variety of reasons why food recalls can be initiated. Some of the major contributing factors in recent years, though, have been contaminations, adulterations, and misbranding of food stuffs that have needed to be addressed.
For example, products can be contaminated with pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes; undeclared sulphites, or allergens like soy, peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, milk, or shellfish; uneviscerated fish; or foreign objects such as metal, plastic, or glass fragments. A nutrient imbalance (generally found in pet food recalls) also occurs quite often.
Other reasons for recalls include a company’s non-compliance with their own Standard Operating Procedures; a failure to properly maintain processing facilities and equipment used for food; deficiencies in the monitoring and production processes for food (e.g., non-compliance with the current Good Manufacturing Practices or cGMPs, or incorrect food labeling); a firm’s inability to track products through their supply chain; and weaknesses identified in the producer’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).
If Food Recalls Are Initiated…
There are numerous consequences faced by businesses if food recalls are initiated. Apart from the obvious public health issue and brand damage, there is obviously a significant financial cost to be factored in. Companies can lose a lot of sales and market value, plus have to pay for costs associated with notifying regulatory bodies, the supply chain, and consumers; product retrieval, storage, and destruction; additional labor costs; and investigations of the root cause of the safety issue.
Another large financial burden that needs to be considered is the potential litigation cost. Consumers who are affected by a food recall, particularly those who are seriously injured or who have faced a death in their family, often hire specialists in the area of recalls to submit a legal claim for compensation.
To prevent recalls in the first place, firms need to ensure that the best business practices are put in place and carefully followed at all times. GMP and HACCP plans should be put in place to ensure optimum quality and safety levels during the manufacturing process; and regular audits, training, and testing should be carried out. Companies that achieve certifications in world-class standards, such as ISO 22000, BRC, and SQF, particularly show their commitment to food safety principles.
If a recall is deemed necessary, companies must alert government bodies as quickly as possible, coordinate closely with the relevant department, and remove all affected products from the market in a fast and efficient manner to limit the amount of harm caused. Businesses should have contingency plans and crisis-management strategies in place in advance too, so that if recalls are put in place, they can be quickly facilitated.
Zavala, a content coordinator for Seek Visibility, has built up relationships over the years within various blogging communities. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.