Q&A: Stericycle's Kevin Pollack Talks Food Recalls and Undeclared Allergens

Food Manufacturing recently had the opportunity to correspond with Kevin Pollack, VP of recalls at Stericycle, to discuss the topic of undeclared allergens and how they are presenting new recall challenges in the food industry.

Why have recalls become so significant in recent years?

Researchers estimate there are as many as 15 million Americans with food allergies — including one in every 13 children under the age of 18. According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. These alarming statistics have caught the eye of regulators, who have stepped up efforts to prevent undeclared allergens from entering the food supply chain. Also, food manufacturers have been increasingly vigilant and are using new testing methods that can detect allergens faster than ever before, making them better at identifying and reporting allergens.

Should a crisis happen involving undeclared allergens, what is one of the first things that a food manufacturer should do?

The first responsibility is to notify the parties that are affected by the recall. Manufacturers should then quickly remove the product from the market before any harm is caused. With every recall, there are four goals: Protect the public, protect the brand, protect the environment, and close the event as soon as possible. A company with a recall plan in place is best equipped to achieve these goals and avoid any delays that could prolong the recall or lead to additional costly events, not to mention the adverse brand damage associated with poorly executed recalls.

How have new USDA FSIS allergen guidelines affected the food industry?

The guidelines are still very new, so it is a little too early to tell how they have affected the food industry. However, we think they will force food producers and manufacturers to rethink business strategies. From inspection to production to labelling, there will likely be more emphasis on quality control efforts in 2016. Food safety is top of mind for both regulators and consumers, so we will likely see food companies increase the frequency of independent audits at food processing and manufacturing locations to ensure compliance and reduce potential risks. We also believe it will serve as a great reminder for food manufacturers to update and test their recall plans.

What’s your advice to food manufacturers in face of all these food related recalls? 

Managing the many moving pieces of a recall can be extremely complex. A typical recall includes notifying affected consumers, establishing website registrations, retrieving the affected product from store shelves, processing the product, and storing or destroying the product. At the same time, the affected company must also collect all recall data in a central repository to support complex regulatory compliance and reporting needs. Completing these tasks while also focusing on running a business is a challenge that not all manufacturers are ready for. Preparation is key. With intensified scrutiny from the FDA and USDA, food manufacturers cannot afford to be unprepared when, not if, a recall happens. Also, it is very important that food manufacturers test recall plans by conducting periodic recall readiness assessments, or “mock recalls.” This helps individual stakeholders and departments prepare for a recall and enables organizations to make necessary updates and improvements to their recall plans prior to a crisis ever occurring.

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