Industry insiders have noticed a possible unintended side effect of more stringent food safety procedures: more product recalls.
“I think there’s been a lot more recalls since there’s been that final product testing that’s being conducted, a lot of times at the retail level,” said Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management at United Fresh Produce Association.
Overall food recalls have increased by over 300% since 2008, according to Gale Prince, founder of SAGE Food Safety Consultants, Cincinnati, although fresh food categories have not been disproportionately affected. Prince previously served as director of corporate regulatory affairs at Kroger Co.  and has over 40 years of industry experience.
However, the spike in recalls has not impacted all retailers in the same way.
“Industrywide, there does seem to be an increase in the number of recalls,” said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations at Publix Super Markets , Lakeland, Fla. “However, at Publix, we have seen a reduction in recalls. We would like to believe that this can be attributed to our suppliers that have embraced and implemented the Global Food Safety Initiative.”
GFSI is a set of food safety guidelines put forward by an international non-profit industry group.
Such voluntary initiatives could eventually go a long way toward decreasing the number of recalls or at least reducing the impact of a recall by providing a more targeted approach to removing defective products from the supply chain.
That is one goal of the Produce Traceability Initiative, a voluntary program that aims to set up an industrywide system to electronically track cases of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the entire supply chain, from the farm to the individual store.
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Such procedures will someday allow retailers and suppliers to recall just the cases that are known to have a problem, rather than every single item from a farm or retailer.
“And if you can do that quickly and consistently then everyone’s confidence is built up and we have a safer supply chain from the fact that we can remove, in a very surgical manner, any product that may be implicated,” said Vache.
PTI implementation started with growers and shippers and has been working its way down the supply chain. Vache said it would probably be 2014 by the time retailers executed the final steps of PTI, but many have started putting the protocols in place.
“On this Produce Traceability Initiative, we have requested our vendors to use the PTI stickers on all the produce coming into our facility. We’re currently at about 50% compliance from the vendors,” said Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of Stater Bros. Markets , San Bernardino, Calif.
“Once we’ve completed this compliance from all vendors, we will be able to integrate that information into our receiving system,” he added.
Publix has also worked with suppliers to use PTI to track the 100 million cases of fresh fruits and vegetables that are shipped from its distribution centers to stores each year.
“As of the first quarter of 2012, Publix was the first retailer to successfully implement this as a requirement with all produce suppliers. We are also working collaboratively with the Institute of Food Technologists as part of a Traceability Working Group to improve traceability throughout other food commodity groups,” said Brous.
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Another retailer to watch is Wal-Mart Stores , although the company is “not making any public statements,” said Vache.
“They are working on it. And they expressed to their supply side that, ‘We’re working on this, and we expect you to be following the course of the PTI, too, so that when we do roll out our ability to record and store information that you’re labeling the cases,’” said Vache.
A spokesperson for Wal-Mart declined to comment on the chain’s participation in PTI.
New Ways to Communicate
Another evolving aspect of fresh food recalls is how retailers communicate with customers. With instant access to loyal followers, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are an easy way to reach those who may have purchased a recalled product.
“We also post information on Class I recalls on our website and on our Facebook page,” said Jamie Miller, manager of public and community relations for Giant Food , Landover, Md.
“I would say it’s just another avenue, another communication avenue for us to communicate to our customers for recalls or other situations where there’s a sense of urgency to get the word out to our customers,” he added.
Read more: Food Safety Concerns Remain Constant 
But while social media posts can be a convenient method for informing customers, they can also provoke a negative response if retailers don’t carefully control the conversation.
For example, when Hannaford Supermarkets  posted about a national recall on its Facebook page in August, it received multiple negative comments about the perceived high number of product recalls at the chain.
Conversely, one of Wegmans Food Markets ’ Twitter followers found fault with the fact that the retailer didn’t announce a particular November recall on the social media site.
“The manufacturer and the retailer must monitor various social media channels and respond to consumer issues immediately. Disgruntled consumers can quickly do damage to a company’s brand equity by spreading inaccurate information regarding a recalled product,” said Prince, the food safety consultant, who is known as the “dean of product recalls.”
As much as social media usage has grown, many retailers still turn to tried and true methods for alerting customers about recalls.
“Consumer research indicates that the leading source for consumers to learn of product recall information is through television,” said Prince.
Stater Bros. often provides information to local TV stations in the event of a recall. “We think they’re an important part of informing our customers, obviously, that there’s a concern,” said Brown.
Ultimately, the most effective way to find out which consumers have purchased a recalled product is through detailed membership card data, like that utilized by Costco Wholesale Corp. , because the retailer keeps track of every item each member purchases, said Vache.
“And they have a system that they email you, they will place a phone call to you to say, ‘Listen there could be potential issues with this product. Please return it or destroy it.’ So they’re very proactive.”
Giant Food performs a similar service, but only for customers that used a loyalty card when making the purchase and have provided sufficient contact information.
“We make calls to customers who we’ve identified who may have purchased defective product through the card data information that we have,” said Miller.
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Vache noted that such loyalty cards provide an incomplete picture because they are optional and may not be used on each shopping trip, but he expected more retailers to follow the Costco model in the future.
“Now, the majority of retailers do not have that capability, because they’re not tracking every purchase that you make,” said Vache.
“But I think that eventually we’ll see more and more of that.”
Sidebar: FSIS Adds Online Complaint Form
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service introduced a new online form earlier this fall for consumers to report problems with meat, poultry and egg products.
Although the FSIS has been fielding complaints since 2001 through a consumer hotline that is staffed during weekday business hours, the Electronic Consumer Complaint Form gives consumers more flexibility in when they submit comments because it is available 24 hours a day, said Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for the FSIS Office of Public Health Science.
“Creating the online form was really about providing good customer service and a channel for the public to reach us in a way that is most comfortable for them,” said Goldman.
The ECCF allows for consumer feedback when an item purchased is mislabeled or misbranded, contains allergens or foreign objects, causes illness or injury, or just looks or tastes “off.” As with other FSIS reporting tools, the online form asks for information about the retailer from which the consumer purchased the defective product.
Goldman said he expects the ECCF to lead to more reporting by consumers, and so far that has been the case. Complaints across all channels doubled in October compared to previous months, with ECCF submissions accounting for 37% of total complaints.
“Increased reporting may provide more information FSIS can use to determine whether the source of a complaint originated from the producing facility or if there are trends indicating that the problem may have originated at retail,” said Goldman.
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