ARLINGTON, Va. — A new product recall portal launched on Jan. 8 by the Food Marketing Institute here was not ready to communicate information about the recall of peanut butter products in January. But the portal is expected to be used in “a few months” in recall situations after it has additional users, said Leslie Sarasin, FMI's president and chief executive officer.
The peanut butter recall, caused by a Salmonella outbreak, occurred while the Web portal was in its early stages and seeking a sufficient number of manufacturers and retailer subscribers to become fully operative, Sarasin said. “My hope is we're going to quickly get as many companies signed up as possible,” she noted. “I can't say that will happen next week, but we're talking a few months, not six or nine months.”
FMI is aggressively working with its partner in the portal project, GS1 US, Lawrenceville, N.J., as well as other industry groups, to drive participation in the portal. Initial subscribers have been advised that the portal will not be fully active until more companies join.
Designed by FMI and GS1 US, the product recall portal was introduced last June at GS1 US' U Connect conference in Dallas. It was described as an online tool that will allow rapid and secure communication of standardized and comprehensive recall information by manufacturers to retailers in response to the growing number of product recalls. It is available to companies that are members of either FMI or GS1 US.
The portal was also touted as the primary communication vehicle manufacturers could use rather than — or at least as a complement to — the assortment of methods currently employed, such as phone calls, faxes, emails and press releases.
“We need a centralized vehicle so we know we're getting all the information on recalls,” said Art Potash, CEO of Potash Bros. Markets, a three-store operator based in Chicago that is subscribing to the portal.
It is also intended to prevent surprises. “Gone will be the days of your learning first about a product recall only when the local TV consumer reporter shows up at your store with a camera crew,” Sarasin told an audience of retailers in referring to the portal at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference in Orlando, Fla., last month.
The launch of the portal, originally set for late summer of 2008, was delayed by programming changes and technical adjustments. FMI began accepting subscriptions via FMI.org on Oct. 15 from retailers and on Jan. 8 — the official launch date — from suppliers.
As of Jan. 23, 38 retailers had signed up for the portal but only three manufacturers or suppliers had done so — J.M. Smucker, Apple Wedge Packers and Steck Wholesale Foods. Retail subscribers include Kroger, Wegmans Food Markets, Wakefern, Publix Super Markets and Meijer, among other large and small retail organizations.
FMI has set an annual fee structure for portal subscriptions that varies by company size, from $500 to $1,500 for “recall initiators” and from $250 to $750 for “recall receivers.” FMI considers the fees nominal and not an impediment to subscribing.
Manufacturers are intended to be the source of recall information in the portal, but Sarasin noted that FMI or GS1 US could also use the portal to disseminate information provided by the Food and Drug Administration or other federal agencies. In the peanut butter product recall, FMI has sent email alerts to its members and held a conference call to answer questions.
To reach a “critical mass” of manufacturer subscribers to the portal, FMI is collaborating with GS1 US to sign up the manufacturers that use GS1 US for bar-code management and other services. On Jan. 8, FMI and GS1 US sent a recruitment email promoting the portal to 40,000 suppliers, according to Jon Mellor, a spokesman for GS1 US.
FMI is also working on recruitment with manufacturer trade associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Frozen Food Institute, where Sarasin was previously president and CEO. And FMI is continuing to bring in more of its own members.
“We're in the throes of doing outreach to as many communities as we can,” said Sarasin, who added she would ultimately like to see the bulk of the industry involved.
Some retailers are spreading the word about the portal to their suppliers. For example, Publix recently sent a letter to its suppliers encouraging their participation.
Sarasin said the peanut butter recall exemplifies why the portal is important.
“That case had varying degrees of information coming out over a period of time,” she said. “So being able to go to one source to get all of the up-to-date information from suppliers, the FDA or the USDA would make it go smoother.”