From beginning to end, there was certainly no shortage of food recalls last year – and as the recent case of hard-cooked eggs linked to Listeria prove, there’s no sign of food recalls stopping this year either. As long as there are products to be made, there will always be recalls when things go wrong – it’s just part of the circle of life. But in the interest of science, it’s always interesting to look back and see exactly where the chips fell and when. According to a new report by recall logistics company Stericycle ExpertRECALL, drawing on cumulative data from the CPSC and the FDA, food-related recalls in particular exploded toward the end of 2011, rising by 50 percent in the year’s last quarter.
Recalls can happen for any number of reasons – food-borne pathogens, errant metal shavings, defective packaging, and on and on. But undeclared allergens topped the list, accounting for a full third of all food-related recalls over the course of the quarter. Listeria – not all pathogens, but Listeria alone – was reportedly the second-leading cause, making up 20 percent of recalls.
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"Despite the drop in several other categories, the sharp increase in food product recalls is cause for concern," said Mike Rozembajgier, Vice President of Recalls at Stericycle ExpertRECALL, in a press release. "Food recalls are challenging because they affect all consumers. Ensuring consumer safety during food recalls is complicated further when food is repackaged for storage or put in re-sealable containers, eliminating any chance of identifying the food in our homes as having been recalled."
"Another issue is that with so many recalls being initiated, consumers suffering from 'recall fatigue' may pay less attention to recall announcements than they should," he continued. "In this current environment, manufacturers and retailers must take extra care to ensure that consumers are receiving the right messages about recalls and that they are encouraged to respond appropriately."
[UPDATE!] We were able to get in touch with Rozembajgier to talk about exactly what a food producer or retailer can hope to take away from ExpertRECALL's Recall Index report. "The increased number of food recalls at the end of the year is proof that, despite concerns about budget or lack of progress concerning the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is paying very close attention to food safety issues," he says. "Food manufacturers, retailers, foodservice companies – anyone involved with food is under greater scrutiny than ever. In light of this evidence of increased scrutiny, I think food producers and retailers should follow closely the FDA and CDC’s guides on how to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks, and most state health departments offer additional guidelines on how companies in the foodservice industry can prevent food contamination."
Rozembajgier adds that, while prevention is certainly half the battle, it's also important for businesses to not just have a plan in place for times when things go awry, but the training to execute that plan effectively. "Food safety recalls are not a matter of if, but a matter of when," he notes. "Because regulatory compliance is often a moving target, producers and retailers should implement standard operating procedures that can be applied in response to food product recalls – but because a plan is only effective if people know how to use it, it can’t just sit on a shelf and collect dust. It has to be tested regularly by knowledgeable staff to make sure that they are trained to respond to a situation when it hits."
What's more, Rozembajgier also explains the importance of making sure that safety measures are taken not just at your own company but all throughout your connecting supply chain. "When we talk about food getting from farm to fork, there are a lot of players involved," says Rozembajgier. "Each one of them, if they’re involved in the handling of the product that could be impacted by a recall, have got to have the right systems in place to be able to track where that product is at any particular time, so that once a recall occurs we can ensure that it’s effectively taken out of the supply chain."
You can read the full ExpertRECALL Quarterly Recall Index report here.