Volunteering For A Recall

By Guest Blogger Cathy Crawford

The proposed regulations which are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act include provisions for mandatory recalls. While in rare cases, such provisions could potentially be helpful where a company is reluctant to conduct a recall, the vast majority of recalls are not only voluntary and effective, but often go above and beyond what may soon be defined as “requirements.”

Consider, for instance, the recent recall of various canned Slim-Fast products. Unilever should be commended for its voluntary and precautionary actions. In this regard, it is critical to note that there were no illnesses associated with the consumption of these products. Rather, a potential food safety issue was identified internally by the company and then immediately reported. Thus, this is not a case that demonstrates the importance of, or need for, additional government oversight. Rather, this was a responsible company which, on its own accord, accepted the need to react, and did react, proactively to address possible food safety concerns.

Next, and even more important, is the size of the recall. Large recalls sometimes lead the media and consumers to believe that our great American food supply is unsafe. This recall, however, demonstrates just the opposite. For Unilever, it was likely that the exact cause of the potential problem was not immediately understood. Nevertheless, all of the potentially affected products involved in the recall were simply assumed by the company to be possibly – not factually – contaminated. In truth, there may have been one contaminated container, none, or many. Because the company wanted to react quickly, however, it initiated a very expansive recall, hoping the public would respect its actions, rather than judging it for having produced a suspect product.

Often, the behind the scenes, certain data driving the scope and limits of a recall are not fully available to the public. In turn, what consumers see or believe is only that a company released a food product later subject to a recall, and then had to have it returned so it could be safely discarded. What is rarely explained is that most of the food involved in any recall is completely safe. Because it can’t quickly be "proven" to be either safe or unsafe, however, it is voluntarily recalled, in an abundance of caution, to remove all potential risk.

If, or more likely when, recalls become “mandatory,” most companies will of course strive to comply with those requirements imposed by the relevant federal agencies. In doing so, however, some companies may become dependent upon federal regulators to define the scope of a recall, and thus overlook the opportunity to do more than what is being strictly required. Thus, although we may see routine compliance, we may also witness a potential loss in some of the extraordinary efforts taken by companies when they themselves voluntarily define the scope of a recall and go the extra mile in the name of public confidence and food safety.

Thus, in my view, additional and pointed regulatory power in such circumstances may not be the best answer. Instead, a coordinated effort to increase and enhance industry education may be a better long term solution. Imagine, for instance, the difference of having careful drivers in a school zone where the community uses education and training to instill an authentic sense of care about driving near schools. Compare this to a place where the time allotted for drivers’ education courses has been reduced, but drivers are expected to travel at 25 mph only because it is mandatory. In the end, which environment is safer? In which case are drivers likely to push the limit farther, and drive a bit faster, when no one is looking?

I would rather see additional resources diverted to increased awarness and training than simply trying to legislate a quick solution to a perceived problem by empowering and then expecting regulators to both define and then require “mandatory recalls.” Remember the drivers’ educational videos that may have scared you and convinced you of the power in your hands when at the wheel? Perhaps something similar, along with increased annual Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (“HACCP”) and food safety training, would do more for our system than additional legislation.

The food safety systems in many companies include HACCP protocols as well as systems in compliance with globally accepted food safety standards such as the Safe Quality Foods (SQF) or the British Retail Consortium (BRC). There are times when these systems might fail to identify or prevent a hazard. In these cases, however, responsible companies most often act proactively and quickly to implement corrective actions. Those actions include protecting the public, finding the cause of the problem, eliminating that cause, and updating internal systems to ensure any changes are effective. These things don’t happen without training. No legislation can replace that.

Nevertheless, a mandatory recall provision will likely pass. Without robust and effective food safety training at all stages in the food chain, however, this by itself will not likely diminish the need for recalls, nor will future recalls become any more efficient or effective.

* Cathy Crawford serves as a consultant with the HACCP Consulting Group (HCG), based in Fairfax, VA, just outside of Washington, DC.

HCG provides food safety consulting services to the food industry. Founded in 1994, HCG offers food safety training and assistance to both the FSIS and FDA regulated food industry as well as in over 35 countries that export meat and/or poultry to the U.S. Five of HCG’s 10 partners are former FSIS officials with the others from the food industry and state inspection programs. We have basic and advanced HACCP training courses accredited by the International HACCP Alliance in College Station, TX. HCG also provides Serve Safe training to the restaurant industry and has provided food safety training at a well know Culinary Institute. For more information about HCG please visit HCG’s web site at www.haccpcg.com.

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Julianne Miles - January 15, 2010 5:01 AM

It is a sad fact that a few less than scrupulous companies can take actions that cause over reaction by government to try to fix it for everyone. I agree that the whole system doesn't need mandatory recalls, but more training to prevent the need for recalls in the first place!

Jennifer - January 16, 2010 11:36 PM

You make great points. I wonder if there is some sort of happy medium. Sure, more regulation isn't necessary, especially if most companies self regulate. Unfortunately, it's only most companies. What happens when one or two companies don't self regualte.

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