Food Recalls

Food recalls are a series of corrective actions that remove potentially unsafe food products from the distribution channel, store shelves and consumers’ kitchens.  As food science continues to ensure overall food quality, and food safety detection technologies continue to advance at a rapid pace, daily alerts of food recalls are becoming common in many countries.

food-recallsFood Recalls and the Regulation Dilemma

When it comes to food recalls, food safety standards and regulations are usually non-prescriptive and define “what” needs to occur in the event of a recall.

But the dilemma facing industry is the “how to”. To this end, industry commissioned the global not-for-profit supply chain standards association, GS1, to create the first industry recall standards for food that would lend efficiency, accuracy and transparency to the recall process.

The standard took close to four years to develop and was based on industry inputs from over 30 countries. It was ratified in 2012.  An accompanying implementation guide walks companies through the specific steps and actions to be taken during a national or international product recall.

Health and Financial Risks of Food Recalls

It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that on a yearly basis one in six Americans – which adds up to approximately 48 million people – will be directly affected by foodborne diseases. Out of these 48 million, 150,000 will need hospitalization, and 3,000 will die.

Apart from the obvious health impacts, the economic consequences of food recalls are alarming. According to a study published by the GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association – Capturing Recall Costs: Measuring and Recovering the Losses) 77% of respondents from companies that had faced a food recall between 2005 and 2010 reported that the estimated financial impact was up to $30 million. And 23% reported even higher costs. 

The significant costs from food recalls are made up of direct recall costs, the costs of discarded goods, direct sales losses, and also expenditures created by business interruption, customer reimbursement, sanitizing facilities and investigation. 

A financial consequence that is harder to measure is the loss of future sales due to the damage of the reputation of the brand.  It can take years for consumers to regain confidence in a product after the major health scare of food recalls.

Food Recall Categories

Food recalls are usually classified according to the potential damage they can cause.  Both the FDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) use the same classifications:

  • “Class I” Food Recalls: a situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of, or exposure to, a violate product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.  Examples of this highest alert status are: microbial contamination by harmful strains of bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli and undeclared allergens.
  • “Class II” Food Recalls: a situation where the use of, or exposure to, a violative product may cause temporary adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote. Examples for a class II alert are: botulinum and Norovirus contamination
  • “Class III” Food Recalls: a situation where the use of, or exposure to, a violate product is not likely to cause any adverse health consequences. Recalls of this type consist of incorrect weight, volume or origin, as well as labeling issues or foods that contain yeast or mold contaminations.

Triggers for Food Recalls

Most food recalls are initiated by food manufacturers or food distributors after establishing that an incident has occurred. In a 1998 US study of food manufacturers, it took an average of 18 days to “sense and act” after an incident was reported before a food recall was launched. Once launched, it took an average of 42 days to complete the food recall.

After this elapsed 60 days, only 43% of products in class 1 recalls were traced. This study was one of the key drivers for US industry to engage with GS1 to create the first industry standard and a common industry language to increase the effectiveness of food product recalls.

Food recalls may be triggered by an illness outbreak, where a link can be determined between illnesses and certain foods. It is important for health care providers to be vigilant and report incidents to government agencies as soon as possible to ensure food safety.

As government agencies conduct regular inspections at food processing, manufacturing and distribution facilities, they may discover  a potential food safety hazard.  Regular food testing by industry and government agencies is imperative in keeping the food supply chain safe.

Consumers play an increasingly active role in the food safety process. Posts on social media can spread information very quickly.

Often a consumer complaint can lead to an investigation and possible food recalls. Herein lies a weakness of social media: “social rumor” about a product, or a brand name without specific reference to the globally unique identifier on every product (Global Trade Item Number from the bar code) can lead to the incorrect food product being removed from the supply chain. This can have severe consequences for supply and demand, and also impacts food security as food recalls target and destroy perfectly safe food.

The Process for Food Recalls

Food recalls almost always occur on a voluntary basis, but several governments have revised legislation to give them powers to force a recall.

Because of the high risks posed by unsafe food, the sooner a threat is contained the less damage will be done, from health, safety and financial points of view.

Most countries around the world have implemented their own processes to follow in case of food safety threats. However, harmonization and transparency are elusive and food recalled in one economy may end up being dumped in a neighboring economy by unscrupulous food supply chain actors.

In general the government agencies’ role is to inform the public, oversee implementation of the food recall and verify that industry has removed recalled products from store shelves. What is lacking on a global level is consistency, the ethical and sustainable removal of the contaminated food product, and destruction of the recalled products.

E. Coli Doesn’t Stop at the Border

As the global food chain becomes more complex and international trade is increasing, it has become vital for economies to coordinate their food recalls in order to mitigate the risk of a global threat to human health and safety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published guidelines for improving and developing national food recall systems.

Part of international collaboration  is the creation of The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), a joint initiative between WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO).

The INFOSAN network has over 180 participating economies and promotes the rapid exchange of information between regulatory bodies in food safety related cases. The prompt response is assured by using designated emergency contact points, which allows for clear communication, without any loss of time. Unfortunately, many economies are in “listening mode” and do not actively participate in INFOSAN. This could be for many reasons including lack of resources, immaturity of their national food safety enforcement systems or because a food safety recall could negatively effect their economic output. Nevertheless, the WHO’s national recall guideline document combined with INFOSAN and the GS1 business to business product recall standard and implementation guide are powerful tools when used together.



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