Do Increased Product Recalls Equate to Worsening Food Safety?
What do pistachios, cantaloupe, granola, sprouts, raw meal and flax powder have in common?
These diverse foods were all implicated as sources of Salmonella contamination subject to recall – just within the last week. If we add on the recalls for Listeria and E. coli, along with adulteration, misbranding and undeclared allergens, that have occurred since the year started, it’s easy to see that 2016 is not beginning well in relation to recalls.
But, is this because there actually is more contamination of food? Or is there another reason? While I wouldn’t rule out the fact that contamination could be occurring more frequently I really don’t think that is the issue at all. I believe there are a number of other reasons that we are seeing – and will continue to see – more recalls. And, along with that, more repercussions. Just a few of these I see are:
- There is increased vigilance at retail by regulators – especially at the state level. Along with FDA’s increased vigilance throughout the supply chain due to the expanded authorities granted by FSMA are increased agency and state testing at retail. FDA improvement of its retail food protection program has been a topic of discussion for the past 10 years; now with the FDA’s development of the “Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards” (Retail Program Standards) intended to establish national uniformity through a set of recognized standards for retail regulatory programs that administer the Food Code. The program is to establish operational partnerships to help build the capacity of state and local authorities and strategies for improving their food safety efforts, with the ultimate goal of reducing or eliminating the occurrence of illness and death from food produced at the retail level. Although the inspections are occurring at the retail level, it means heightened attention on the entire supply chain, as any uncaught upstream contamination of these foods is now more likely to be discovered.
- The use of whole genome sequencing (WGS) is increasing the connections between human illness, bacterial isolates found in plants and food. In a previous article, we discussed how the rise of whole genome sequencing will impact the industry. A tipping point at the federal level was the 2012 collaboration by FDA, CDC, NIH and USDA/FSIS laboratories to launch the Whole Genome Sequencing Project. As we discussed in our 2014 article, this technology enables scientists to see the exact order of the molecules in an organism’s genetic material, which provides the ultimate discriminatory power in identifying specific strains of bacteria or viruses related to foodborne illness outbreaks. Since that time, the federal laboratories have been using WGS to track outbreaks, with a high profile example of its use in the Blue Bell Listeria recall case, in which CDC’s use of WGS enabled a more detailed DNA fingerprint and quicker tracking.
I believe there are a number of other reasons that we are seeing – and will continue to see – more recalls."
- It’s no longer just about your brand; it can get personal too. While protecting the consumer from illness and death should always be the primary factor in food safety, there are additional considerations, such as the repercussions that an outbreak and recall can have on one’s brand and reputation. But today, those repercussions don’t necessarily stop at the company level, rather executives and managers are being held liable. The most prominent case was that of the PCA executives who received prison sentences of more than 20 years, but there is also the recent case of the California slaughterhouse owner who was sentenced to prison for distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. The case is interesting because, while the owner received a reduced sentence due to his age and poor health, these did not altogether exempt him from repercussions. The case shows that if you are found to have knowingly produced or released contaminated food, you will face consequences.
- It’s easier than ever for plaintiff attorneys to plead their case. Today’s foodborne illness attorneys can simply wait for CDC to link an outbreak with the product (e.g., see genome sequencing above), and then pounce. The regulators have already done their job for them, they don’t have to prove anything. And if the regulators have also found any of the executives liable, you can place a sure bet that they will be personally named in a lawsuit as well.
- Media and social media attention never waver. Recalls are a media hot point today, and where media goes, social media soon follows in droves. Thus, whether there are more recalls or simply more publicity of recalls, there will be news coverage; but the fact that there are more recalls is giving both even more to talk about. And it’s just not small, local publications or little-read blogs. A January 29 Forbes article headline said it all: “25 Food Recalls So Far This Year, And It Looks Like Plenty More To Come.” The article included what the publication noted as a “partial list” of recalls in the first month of the year, noting, “Food recalls are nothing new, but it’s hard to recall a time when they were in the news so much.”
While none of this really answers the question as to whether there is more food contamination occurring or more cases simply being discovered and recalled, I’m not sure it really matters. What matters is that you are much more likely to have your food linked to illness or found to contain a pathogen today than ever before. The pace of “connecting the dots” is moving faster than our ability to make food even safer. But, despite the negative impacts and repercussions, the increase in recalls can be seen as a good thing by some. Whether there really is more contamination or just more cases being caught, the increased recalls are helping to keep consumer impact in check and, hopefully, causing industry to focus more on food safety practices. And that can only be a good thing – for the consumer and for the food industry itself.
All that said, no firm welcomes a recall and no firm sees recalls as a good thing. But being focused on the increasing likelihood of a recall and having good recall programs and ways to limit the implicated product with good records and good practices is more critical today than ever before. Yet it is amazing how often I still run into food companies who say we have never had a recall and don’t see the point in spending resources on preparing and practicing for one. Oh well – it may be only a matter of time.
About the author. . .
Dr. David Acheson is the Founder and CEO of The Acheson Group. Dr. Acheson brings more than 30 years of medical and food safety research and experience to the firm. Prior to forming The Acheson Group, he served as the Chief Medical Officer at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and then in 2002 joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the Chief Medical Officer at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).
The views expressed in this column are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of XL Catlin.