We sat down with Duncan Moir, Product Director at Epicor, to discuss the minutia of food recalls and what the food processing industry can do to get on top of the issue.
Why are we experiencing increasing levels of food recalls?
In the last ten years or so, the world has become more health- and safety conscious, with a much greater focus on the nutritional and allergen content of our food. There are also cultural, religious, lifestyle, and dietary drivers of change. As a result, legislation on traceability and product labelling has had to adapt and expand, becoming more complex and onerous. Failure to comply with these regulations could have a drastic effect on food producers, not only regarding the risk to human life, but also to the viability of their businesses.
One product recall alone can result in supermarket fines, revenue reductions, reputational damage, and potential exclusions from future range reviews. Most food producers operate on low margins, so any recalls or replacements can result in significant losses or even business failures. Recently, there was a fatal allergic reaction due to a lack of accurate labelling at Pret a Manger.
Also, honey and oat biscuits being sold in major UK supermarkets had not been labelled as containing gluten, sparking an urgent recall. Preparation is key. It is almost certain that food producers will face a recall at some point—sometimes because of circumstances that may be beyond their control—so preparation is vital. No organisation would run a business without backing up their data, and recall preparation is arguably as important to the viability of the business.
Why can’t food manufacturers get it right?
Sometimes it’s impossible. In the highly complex food processing world, there are many reasons why, through no fault of their own, food manufacturers will experience the need for a food recall— no matter the precautions they take. If lettuce from one farm is contaminated with E. coli and gets shipped together with greens from other farms, all can get contaminated. If processed with other items, the issue expands further. More food is getting mass produced today, so the likelihood for large-scale recalls will grow. Sadly, fruits and vegetable, the very things we should eat, can create the greatest risk.
Contaminated processed foods that are usually heated up, are often safer, since the process kills off those bacteria. Machine breakdown can be another cause of unforeseen contaminants, either in the processing company, or further down the supply chain. If you then add into the mix human error, malicious behaviour, poorly maintained machinery, lax processes and safety, relaxed labelling protocols, and a lack of transparency, we can understand why this is so challenging to get right.
Why is it so difficult to instigate a food recall?
A safety issue is identified in the market. It could come from either your customer chain, or your supplier chain, or the worst-case scenario—the media. The multiparty investigation starts— the source of the infection must be identified quickly. In an ideal situation, once you receive the necessary information, your robust enterprise resource planning (ERP) system will quickly identify the batch(es) of goods that were directly affected by the ingredient or issue. You can then quickly and accurately communicate the affected batch numbers along the supply chain, even down to delivery schedules and locations. Job done—well at least from your side.
Now, here’s the real issue. Not all ERP solutions can quickly identify where in the supply chain the affected issue started. There are many areas to consider—batch recording of storage, warehousing, integration with other ingredients, manufacturing process, transport, location questions, and so much more. If your ERP solution cannot bring together all your processes and give you the accurate information you need, then you have to expand your coverage. This means involving other batches that perhaps “might” be involved—just to make sure—and that’s expensive for you and anyone else within your supply chain.
If it is only a small batch, why are we seeing large expensive food recalls?
The food processing industry is often based on a complex and long supply chain. This makes it very difficult to identify the actual source of any problem, particularly the batch. One recent example was the widely covered news that 200 tonnes of frozen chicken from USA-based Wayne Farms LLC, were recalled for potentially containing bits of metal. Chicken products that had been sold across America were affected.
When all this goes into ongoing food processing, you can start to see the size of the problem. Not only is the large quantity of chicken recalled, but so would every other subsequent product be recalled. To make matters worse, if there is uncertainty that some chicken might have been in other products, the scope of the issue grows yet further. For these reasons, traceability and compliance must remain top of the agenda in the boardrooms of all food businesses.
How can the food processing industry get on top of this issue?
Recalls are going to happen, so the goal is to minimise their frequency, impact, and cost. Consider an IT analogy—whatever IT security protection you implement, your systems can still be infected. What you must do is have the systems and processes in place to limit and mitigate the potential risk—should it ever occur. The objective is to catch the contaminating cause early, and accurately identify the cause and impact on other processes.
- Be more involved with suppliers to understand the risks involved in materials purchased. This will become more important should Britain be excluded from the Rapid Alert Systems (RAPEX and RASFF) following its exit from the European Union.
- Perform quality checks throughout each process to help identify any outof-specification materials—from goodsin to despatch—before they affect a customer.
- Bar code all materials and products to enable real-time tracking through bar code scanning. This helps identify cross-contamination issues, and is vital for accurate traceability.
- Make traceability a part of standard automated processes. Eliminate paper-based recording or separate tracking to remove any rekeying errors, and ensure that traceability information is accurate and can be accessed quickly.
- Simulate recalls regularly to test the process and readiness to prepare producers in the event of a genuine issue.
- Perform regular audits, in addition to those imposed by customers and other agencies, to help food producers find issues before consumers do. This helps companies both minimise the impact of these events and maintain brand confidence.
The key to successfully navigating a product recall is to implement robust standard procedures. These need to be supported by fully integrated computer systems, which minimise the cost of capturing traceability information and can help pinpoint those impacted by the problem in seconds.
The earlier a problem is identified, the faster it can be addressed to minimise the risk to life and the impact on reputation. Embracing traceability as an integral part of the business process will remove significant risk and support a more profitable business.
A modern, industry-specific enterprise resource planning (ERP) system embedded across all purchasing, production, and despatch activities can provide food manufacturers with real-time data insights that enable improved quality management and traceability. These insights can help prevent, or at least minimise, the impact of recall—allowing manufacturers to focus their efforts on getting fit for future business growth.