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The Truth About Food Safety Recalls


To the quality managers we work with, a recall can be a career and company-defining event.  It is an action taken to protect the consumers and the company as a last resort.  The vast majority of recalls are voluntary and a reflection of conscientious behavior by the retailers, wholesaler and producers.  As a result of a recall, companies and brands incur high costs in investigation, remediation, customer management, logistics and brand perception.  With the amplification in social media and news channels, public perception regarding food safety and recalls can get distorted.  Here’s the truth about recalls:

What triggers a recall?

According to FSIS, a recall is a result of any one of the following: 

  • The company that manufactured or distributed the food informs FSIS of a potential hazard
  • Test results received by FSIS as part of its sampling program indicate that the products are adulterated or misbranded
  • FSIS field inspectors and program investigators, in the course of their routine duties, discover unsafe or improperly labeled foods
  • The investigation into epidemiological data as a result of an outbreak is correlated back to a specific product and deemed unsafe, unwholesome or inaccurate.

It seems like recalls are always in the news.  Just how many recalls are there?

  • USDA reported 599 meat and poultry food recalls from 2005 to 2013
  • 42% of the USDA recalls were pathogen related (STEC, Listeria, or Salmonella)
  • Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli recalls accounted for 94 recalls in 2013, down from 227 recalls in 2012
recall chart resized 600

How much does a recall cost?

A recall is a challenging event for any organization.  Resources must be diverted to managing the logistics and investigations.  Recalls not only affect the responsible company, but they often negatively impact the respective industry.  They can be very costly to the company in many ways.  In a survey sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Ernst & Young, respondents agreed that the four largest financial exposures faced by a company during a recall are business interruptions or lost profits, recall execution costs, liability risk and reputation damage or loss of brand equity.  The estimated financial costs range from millions to hundreds of millions. 

recall cost pic resized 600

The impact to the category can be even more detrimental.  Following a high profile recall and outbreak, spinach and leaf greens suffered a 70% drop in sales and it took over 2 years for the category to recover.  

How many people get sick from unsafe food?

 Many recalls are initiated by the company after the product has left their control but before it has reached consumers. If these companies had a test that allowed them to obtain results faster, they may be able to make organizational changes that would avoid the recall all together.  In these cases, there are no illnesses are expected or reported.  However, too many people are still suffering from food borne illness each year.  This is what motivates our team and our customers to make food safer.

 According to the CDC:

  • Each year 48 million people get sick
  • 128,000 are hospitalized
  • 3,000 die from food borne illness 

Are companies ever prosecuted for product recalls or outbreaks?

Prosecutions are rare.  Similar to the financial world, prosecutions are a reflection of not just a failure to protect consumers but of gross neglect or malice intent.  There have been two high profile cases recently, Jensen Farms for cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria and the  pending case against Peanut Corporation of America for Salmonella contamination.

Should I continue to buy from a company that has had a recall?

Companies that do not aggressively and proactively respond to a recall will not likely weather it.  The companies that do, often make changes that put them at the forefront of food safety. Many of the companies we have met with distinguish their processes, procedures and structures as “before the recall” or “after the recall.”  They take measureable steps to ensure that future recalls do not occur.

Prevention Instead of Reaction

Our goal at Sample6 is to help companies avoid the possibility of pathogen related recalls and improve their food safety processes.  Our products, DETECT/L and CONTROL, offer an easy, proactive solution for testing for pathogens and environmental monitoring to prevent recalls.

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