Food industry insiders were scratching their heads when peanuts were found earlier this year in wheat flour supplied by a flour milling operation in Georgia. Wheat and peanuts are not typically grown in the same areas. Peanut crops in southern Georgia aren’t even grown on the same soil as wheat, and are rotated with cotton and corn.
Nevertheless, Grain Craft, which produces flour for baking and food service companies, traced the contamination source to winter wheat grown in peanut-producing areas of the South.
“This is why knowing the supply chain and how the products move is so important,” Sage Food Safety Consultants LLC CEO Gail Prince told Food Dive. The contamination impacted numerous companies that received the flour, leading to food product recalls based on an undeclared allergen, the peanut.
Recently, General Mills recalled 30 million pounds of flour due to an E.coli outbreak. The recall was expanded to include pancake products made by Continental Mills, Betty Crocker cake mixes, Marie Callender biscuit mix and products in China.
This week, ConAgra expanded a recall for the P.F. Chang brand of chicken and beef entrees by an additional 191,791 pounds. The company received a notification from a sugar supplier of possible contamination from metal fragments.
With food product recalls making headlines on a regular basis, it seems to be a good time for manufacturers to dust off and update crisis management manuals. The time is also ripe to get out of corporate offices and physically inspect suppliers’ plants, watching their manufacturing procedures.
The most persistent recall challenges are microbiological contamination and undeclared allergens. Sources of contamination can originate from metal fragments that break off during processing or pathogens found in raw agricultural commodities used to create ingredients. Recalls in frozen foods, which have a much longer shelf life than packaged and refrigerated foods, can make an impact years after an initial recall.
Prince said FDA inspection reports often show the culprits behind recalls are violations of good manufacturing practices, such as maintaining sanitary facilities and equipment.
My product has been recalled — now what?
In 2005 there were nearly 500 food recalls. Now, Prince said, there are nearly 2,500 food recalls a year.
One reason that number is growing is self-imposed recalls, where companies pull products that are potentially contaminated, but haven’t sickened anyone.
“You see an abundance of caution from food companies when a supplier alerts that they found listeria in their sunflower seeds, for example,” Porter Novelli’s nutrition director Michael DeAngelis told Food Dive. “The company steps up without an incident actually happening out of caution.”
Trust between ingredient suppliers, food manufacturers and consumers is vital, and trust is easy to lose, DeAngelis said. When the source of contamination is hard to nail down, it speaks volumes when a company has the foresight to pull a product and goes through the process of figuring out what happened -- even if the cause isn’t determined. And in some cases, companies will look for other suppliers if they can’t do things to prevent another contamination scenario, DeAngelis added.
After the recall, there are several ways a company can be proactive to prevent a recurrence and regain customer and consumer confidence. This includes making quality commitments to both the product manufacturers that use the ingredients, as well as individual consumers who may purchase the ingredient in stores.
Also, experts recommended, collaborate with customers and regulators so that if a food safety issue arises, trust is already in place.
“A quick, thoughtful and cooperative response helps put consumers at ease, and customers will come back to you to source that ingredient,” DeAngelis said.
Product recalls change the scope of food companies, placing a greater emphasis on food safety programs, Prince said.
“You have to paint the picture of what you are doing in the area of food safety, and one of the keys is making sure the customer comes first,” he said.
The culture observed in suppliers’ operations is an important. Are suppliers instilling an attitude where safety and the customer come first? Is equipment designed for easy cleaning and are employees given enough time to clean the machines?
Sanitation efforts, both for the plant and equipment, should take priority over quick production, Prince said.
The Food Safety and Modernization Act is also responsible for working to change food culture in both the United States and abroad, as more ingredients are sourced from around the globe. Under the new law, importers and manufacturers are responsible for outlining the chain of responsibility to demonstrate ingredients are being produced in a sanitary way, Prince added.
He said to keep in mind the core business of food companies is food, and maintaining food safety is important for reputations. He finds it critical for companies to have food scientists in the C-suite, which he said is often made up of accountants and lawyers.
Food scientists are also beginning to take a more prominent role on corporate advisory committees, which are made up of outsiders advising companies on food safety programs. “Some companies have named safety officers or compliance officers to raise the profile throughout the entire company,” Prince said.