Preparation key to dealing with trauma of product recalls

Speed of response critical to miniming reputational and brand damage

A recall of mackerel fillets by Tesco, hummus by Avoca and chicken-and-vegetable soup by Marks & Spencer are just three of the alerts issued by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) since the beginning of the year. These recalls all affected big companies with well-established recall protocols and a team of people to activate them. But what's the impact of a recall on a small company or artisan producer?

"It can be incredibly traumatic," says Kevin Sheridan, of Sheridans Cheesemongers, which buys from numerous small producers. "In large companies, it is something they prepare for. They fix the problem and go home. For a small producer, their business is their whole life and it becomes incredibly personal, especially as the process and the language used can make them feel like criminals.

We believe in being very open and telling customers as quickly as possible. People are generally very understanding

“Our policy on recalls is to act immediately as it narrows the time frame. If a supplier indicates to us that there may be a problem, we move. We don’t wait for it to be official. We have a very strong recall system in place and know exactly where products went and when.

“We believe in being very open and telling customers as quickly as possible. People are generally very understanding. They know these things will happen if you want to eat animal-based products that have taste rather than food that is super-sterilised. As a result a recall has never had a detrimental impact on our business. But how the whole process is handled by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland really needs to be looked at. It could be a lot better.”


Allergen notifications

There are two types of food alerts: general alerts and food allergen notifications. A recent example is a Thorntons Easter egg that had milk in the decoration that was not declared on the label. There are currently 14 allergens that have to be listed on food labels. These include eggs, nuts and soya. Leaving an ingredient off a label is enough to trigger an alert.

Lidl has run foul of the rules for not having English-language labels on products, while Ikea had a problem due to undeclared nuts in some of its chocolate bars.

One of the biggest reasons for alerts is the undeclared presence of peanuts. Other causes include foreign bodies, bugs, things that shouldn’t be there such as amphetamine-like substances in food supplements and nasty tastes or smells. In 2016, Mars had a massive recall involving 50 countries when plastic was found in one of its confectionery products.

Last year, the FSAI dealt with 554 food incidents. This led to 67 food alerts, of which 39 were for food and 28 for allergens.

"Food businesses need to not only ensure the food they place on the market is safe, but that it is also labelled correctly, especially in the case of allergens," says FSAI chief executive Pamela Byrne.

“We urge food businesses to have robust food-safety management systems and to take full advantage of all the information and support provided to ensure they are meeting their obligations.”

Food and beverage regulations are becoming increasingly stringent and companies need to be prepared if the worst should happen

Public protection

Cliodhna McDonough, a consultant in the food, beverage and agribusiness group of legal firm William Fry, combines a background in clinical dietetics and law to advise companies how to avoid or mitigate the effects of a recall.

“Food and beverage regulations are becoming increasingly stringent and companies need to be prepared if the worst should happen,” she says. “There needs to be a plan, it needs to be known to everyone from the CEO down and it needs to be tried and tested to make sure it works, especially given the speed with which things can now spread on social media.

“Companies need to have public protection as their priority, to be able to get the product off the shelves quickly and to communicate what they are doing to minimise reputational and brand damage. I would also stress that companies should not delay in contacting the regulator.”

McDonough also offers advice on how to avoid getting into hot water in the first place, especially in the area of new ingredients. "Novel additives and ingredients are becoming increasingly popular but companies need to make very sure something is allowed before proceeding. The EU runs a very tight ship on ingredients."

She says food recalls can be handled well or badly. “The horse meat scandal in 2013 is an example of bad handling,” she says. “The December 2016 recall by Yeo Valley of yogurt is a great example of a complex recall being very effective due to the strong operating procedures in place.”

How to prepare for a product recall

Have robust traceability for all ingredients, inputs and suppliers.

Ensure you know every link in your supply and distribution chain.

Train all staff to ensure fast, efficient recalls.

Test your plan regularly.

Invest in a quality-assurance programme that evaluates and updates all recall procedures.

Have a crisis communications plan to alert the regulator and the public.

Consider recall insurance but make sure to understand what the policy covers.