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Q&A: How to Properly Address a Food Recall

Outbreaks of listeria, a foodborne illness that can be fatal, have been showing up in the news recently. Food Manufacturing had the chance to sit down with Sonal Sinha, the associate vice president at MetricStream, about the impacts of the recent Sabra hummus recall from a supply chain perspective.

Nearly 30,000 cases of Sabra hummus was recalled in early April due to a possible Listeria contamination. 

Outbreaks of listeria, a foodborne illness that can be fatal, have been showing up in the news a lot recently. From hummus to ice cream, this contaminant has been the talk of the food industry as of late.

Food Manufacturing had the chance to sit down with Sonal Sinha, the associate vice president at MetricStream, about the impacts of the hummus recall from a supply chain perspective.

Sinha is responsible for driving solutions and strategy for MetricStream in the consumer packaged goods, retail and technology industries.

Q: The recent recall of Sabra hummus did not go unnoticed. Could a traceability program have helped to prevent or stop problems surrounding the hummus recall?

A: Bacteria can enter the food chain at many different points. The supply chain operation is essentially no different for food than for manufacturing of durable goods.  There are components that make up the product, and these come from different sources.  A traceability program identifies those ingredients and the suppliers, who in turn might have multiple levels of suppliers. For example, the hummus’ chickpeas might come from a supplier who acquires his/her chick peas from several different countries.

A traceability program combined with quality assurance, which involves periodic or risk based testing and monitoring, could identify tainted products before they hit the store shelf.  Traceability down to the facility level would allow the company to identify which individual component, from which supplier, is the root cause of the issue. Instead of recalling everything, traceability would allow a narrower focus on the tainted ingredient, batch or supplier product.

Q: No matter the reason, food recalls are never good for business. But how a company handles food safety issues that arise is just as important as trying to prevent them in the first place. How can instant access to information about the products flowing through the supply chain allow a company to craft a more intelligent response to a crisis?

A: When a food recall event occurs, an organization goes into crisis management. The organization wants to do an assessment to understand and handle the recall properly to protect their brand. A critical success factor during any recall is timeliness of actions. Having a traceability program will help the company spokesperson to respond quickly with reliable and detailed information.  For example, “this was an issue caused by ingredients from facilities A, B, C for such-and-such reason. It affects batch numbers 100 to 300.”  The company would have that information right away if they have a good traceability and supply chain program in place. The better the information the company can give upfront, the more credible they will be, and the more likely they will be able to retain their loyal customers and most important- protect their brand.

Q: In your expertise, can you list some challenges that food companies are typically faced with when dealing with a recall, and how those difficulties can be best addressed?

A: The first challenge is to find the source and the root cause and the extent of the contamination. To do this efficiently, you need a traceability program involving your suppliers, ingredients and their sources.

The second challenge is to find the location of products shipped. Not having adequate control through technology over the shelf the products sit on, could complicate matters.  

The third challenge is reacting in a timely manner. Not only does the organization need to get important recall information out to the market more broadly, but they also must communicate directly with their distributors and consumers.  The distributors also need to have a proper network themselves to manage the crisis and recall the product.

A fourth challenge is future containment of the problem.  After a crisis, how can the company make sure it doesn’t happen again, or doesn’t happen to other products? Addressing this and understanding the root cause is critical in order to manage the brand.  

Q: What are some specific technologies available to food and beverage manufacturers to help ensure quality products throughout the supply chain?

A: There are Governance Risk and Compliance (GRC) technologies and systems that can help companies manage the quality of their products. A technology enabled governance, risk, and compliance and Quality Management program can provide an integrated and extensive view across the organizations and its end-to-end processes. Using GRC apps, organizations can easily gather information on the supply chain, information from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, audit data, issues, and corrective actions, along with information about risks both inside the company, as well as externally in the market and across social media. All of this data can be brought together into graphical dashboards and real-time reports that help the organization gain better visibility, and more control over their organization and extended supply chain.   

Read More: Reducing Contamination Risks of Compressed Air in Food Plants

Q: What actions should food companies be taking to help monitor the food supply chain?

A: Ensuring adequate oversight and control over the food supply chain requires the right combination of people, processes, and technologies. Having people with the right skill sets is important, as well as the requisite policies and procedures that can govern product testing processes, provide monitoring across suppliers, trigger real-time alerts into external factors that might impact the quality of a product, identify deviations and risks, and trigger notifications and corrective actions. Equally important is enforcement of the organization’s policies and procedures. Technology can help simplify, streamline, and automate all of this. 

Q: Is there anything particularly important in regards to the impact recalls can have throughout the supply chain that you would like to add? Anything I have not touched on yet?

A: Food recalls have both a financial and reputational impact, and oftentimes it goes beyond financial aspects—contamination can become very significant â€” a life-and-death issue for the consumer. Reputational risk can be so severe that the future of the company is put in jeopardy.

In summary, organizations should adopt preventative measures that safeguard their brand during a food recall. If a recall is necessary, it is important for the company to give timely notification, and reliable information to the extent possible and an action plan to their customers to maintain their reputation. In the aftermath of a recall, the company should monitor the suppliers or processes -- whatever led to the problem -- more closely. All of these things can be facilitated and supported by establishing a governance risk and compliance program with all the faucets such as supplier risk, supply chain governance, and quality.