There have been an estimated 900 product recalls in the U.S. during the past 18 months, or about 12 per week. The latest recall, of certain kinds of tomatoes earlier this month, took place as an outbreak of salmonella linked to the product sickened 383 people in 30 states plus Washington, D.C.
The industry is clearly facing a food safety crisis that shows no signs of abating. Consumer confidence in the food supply, while rising in the most recent Food Marketing Institute Trends report, is still “very fragile,” according to Tim Hammonds, FMI's president and chief executive officer.
The food safety issue requires a three-pronged solution: better protocols and audits at the supplier level to prevent food contamination; better traceability procedures to isolate the source as well as the destination of contaminated product; and a better recall mechanism to get contaminated product off the shelf.
While the federal government has a role to play here, its performance lately has been disappointing. For example, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a “food protection plan” last November, but it has yet to provide details about the plan's specific measures, timetables and costs. In the tomato recall, the FDA as of last week had still not isolated the source of the salmonella outbreak.
Consumers now place more confidence in supermarkets than in government agencies on the issue of food quality and safety, according to the FMI report. That means it is up to the food industry to pick up the slack in making sure food products are safe, and that unsafe products are isolated and withdrawn immediately from distribution. There are signs that the industry is taking this responsibility to heart.
As reported in last week's SN, by late summer, FMI and GS1 US plan to launch an online portal — the Product Recall Collaboration Zone — that is designed to allow rapid and secure communication of recall information between manufacturers and retailers. This system, which incorporates standard forms and strict procedures, should represent a marked improvement over the haphazard way that manufacturers now get recall information out to retailers.
Effective recalls require accurate traceability data. To that end, the Produce Marketing Association is spearheading a Produce Traceability Initiative that aims to get as many companies as possible to adopt a common traceability standard. The standard, in effect, calls for data such as item number, lot number and harvest or pack date to be bar-coded on all cases and tracked throughout the supply chain.
And this October, retailers will be able to access a new online database that will contain information on food-safety audits of growers and suppliers, conducted under the auspices of the Safe Quality Food Institute, a division of FMI.
Of course, the rub for all of these initiatives is that they are voluntary and won't be truly effective unless a critical mass of retailers take advantage of them. If retailers miss this opportunity, consumers will have no alternative but to clamor for more government regulation.