Preparing for a Crisis: How to Handle a Food Production Recall

Every food manufacturer hates to think about a food product recall, but planning is the key to prevention.

Should your facility find out there’s a problem with a product, how do you handle a food product recall? Having a clear plan in place and thinking out the “worst-case scenario” will help you identify and shore up any weak spots in your current process. Expect the best, but plan for the worst to ensure that should you ever experience a food product recall, you can handle it quickly, efficiently, and as painlessly as possible.

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It’s something none of us like to imagine—finding out that there’s a broken link in your supply chain that has caused you to receive damaged ingredients or produce a problematic product. Unfortunately, when it comes to food product recalls, this scenario is the least troublesome and the easiest to handle.

On the more dire spectrum of imagination, suppose a product caused a customer to have an allergic reaction or fall ill? Worse still, what if it was due to something that you could have easily prevented in the production process with the right oversight and precautions? You can see where this is going.

It’s better to live with caution than regret, especially when it comes to food and product safety. So, if you’re wondering how to handle a food product recall, it’s crucial that you first explore how to prevent one in the first place. Then should the worst happen, you’ll have steps in place to keep it from spiraling out of control.

Food Production Recalls on the Rise

To avoid a food production recall, trace all the way to the source of the product, even back to the farms where the food is grownIn today’s food production industry, recalls are somewhat inevitable and undoubtedly ubiquitous. Even cautious manufacturers who adhere to every guideline may be subject to ingredient recalls through very little fault of their own. In this case, the best prevention is to source ingredients with the utmost care.

With the acceleration of climate change, food manufacturers are likely to see issues with ingredients as agriculture and farming shift. We all remember the spinach recalls over the last several years or the romaine lettuce scare of 2017. These were due to E. coli contamination from runoff in animal agriculture and particularly concentrated feeding operations. As the landscape changes, we’re likely to continue to see some issues from even the most careful neighboring farms.

Compounding the issue is that fresh produce has become more and more popular. Over the last few decades, people have gravitated towards salad, more green vegetables, and even exotic produce. Food has to travel further to make it onto consumers’ plates, leaving more room for contamination and spoilage.

Climate disasters like the California wildfires, flooding, or hurricanes can also contribute to farmed food contamination. These events may also lead to food supply shortages and cause food manufacturers to source ingredients from less credible spots.

Food product recalls are a public health issue, but they can also cause a significant economic impact. The average cost for a food company to recall a product is $10 million. Now, of course, that’s assuming wide distribution and other factors. Even if you handle the food product recall by the book, it can be a very tough blow. Not only can a recall affect your future sales of that particular product, but it can even taint your brand and cause significant damage to your reputation.

Even in the best of circumstances, food manufacturers with the highest safety protocols may still experience a food product recall. It’s essential to take measures to prevent any issues (and then plan for the worst, just in case).

1. Understand the Common Causes of Recalls

To prevent recalls, it’s essential to break down the root causes. Most food product recalls fall into one of four categories.

The good news is that there are ample resources to help ensure you are following the crucial FDA guidelines. By following them to the letter, you will mitigate many possible disasters and prevent issues that arise from negligence and lack of oversight. The resources are there, so be sure to follow them thoroughly and completely. Shortcuts and workarounds are often where manufacturers see problems arise.

The FDA categorizes recalls into three classes. Class I is the most severe category—meaning the contamination may lead to severe health consequences or even death. Class I recalls include E. coli and Salmonella contamination. Class II indicates that exposure to the product may cause a temporary health effect, although serious effects are remote—for example, food has mold contamination. Class III is where the product won’t cause severe effects, but it’s still being recalled for mislabeling or other less-dangerous issues (which can result in an expensive fix to relabel and repackage products). Finally, there are market withdrawals, which means the recall isn’t subject to FDA action.

By familiarizing yourself with what a recall means and what type of emergency you’re facing, you will feel more prepared.

2. Take Every Precaution to Prevent a Food Product Recall

To prevent a food production recall, ensure everything from training, PPE, and proper sanitation is in place at your food manufacturing facilitySanitation and proper food handling are two of the most crucial factors in preventing most recalls. While you may not be able to do as much about contamination that arises from your supply chain, you can take every step necessary to ensure that contamination never happens on the floor of your facility.

Be sure that your equipment is serviced and working correctly. Issues can often arise because of failed equipment or “quick fixes” for problems that arise (like improper repairs)—schedule regular maintenance and cleaning. Keep extra components on hand, as needed for repairs.

Remember that hot water is a critical part of sanitation. By having properly working hot water equipment for your commercial kitchen, you’ll ensure you always have what you need to keep your work line sanitized and safe. At Reliable, we make it easy for you to access the hot water you need by providing 24/7 service and repair. Contact us at the first sign of an issue.

Train employees thoroughly on all safe handling procedures. Encourage an environment of communication where workers can express concerns and call attention to gaps in the protocol. Often, it’s these “boots on the ground” who will notice problems long before the foreperson or manager. Urge them to speak up if they see anything that doesn’t seem right.

Finally, keep your technology up-to-date and working. Having the right coding and tracking system in place can be a lifesaver when you need to pinpoint when and where a product went out. Should you experience a food product recall, you’ll need to track and find all the products in question quickly. Don’t skimp on your technology.

3. Set Up for Success with a Clear Recall Preparedness Plan

Recalls typically begin in one of three ways. Either a consumer calls to complain, a regulatory agency (like the FDA) recalls an item or ingredient, such as the spinach recalls, or the manufacturer identifies an issue and initiates the recall.

Ensuring you’ve taken every protocol necessary may help you identify a concern immediately before the product ever leaves your facility or gets out the door. This quick catch is, of course, the best-case scenario. To ensure that you’re taking the right precautions, do regular quality checks, keep your line extremely clean, and train all team members wholly and thoroughly.

To better prepare for a food product recall, you should:

  • Have a clear, written recall plan in place.
  • Follow all food safety protocols every time (including allergen segregation, sanitation, and screening).
  • Share copies with your partners, suppliers, and vendors.
  • Test your plan with mock recalls.
  • Maintain precise records and follow all best practices.

Like a fire drill, a food product recall drill will help you realize gaps in your procedures. Holding a mock recall will help you see how quickly you can identify contaminated products and notify partners. It will ensure that your barcoding is working correctly and you’re tracking shipments with clear, accurate information.

4. Triage After a Recall: Preventing Future Recalls

A food recall affects everyone, from the supplier to the customer buying your product in the grocery storeShould you go through a smaller recall, chances are it’s enough to make you swear allegiance to your safety compliance for good. But before you try to keep moving forward and put it behind you, it’s essential to conduct a thorough post-mortem to assess what went wrong and repair the damage to your reputation.

Remember, you may need to engage with PR professionals and experts to help you build back your reputation and re-strengthen your brand (depending on the severity of the recall). If the recall was minor, you might not see a significant impact on your brand, but if it made headlines, you might need to enlist a professional to help.

Once you’re on the road to building back, it’s essential to identify what exactly led to the breach and figure out how to ensure that it never happens again. Look at the traceability of your products. How quickly were you able to enact the food product recall? How well did your tracing system work? Are you 100% confident you were able to complete the recall thoroughly?

Next, it’s time to enact best practices to ensure you’ve addressed any issues that got you in the situation. It’s a time for brutal honesty—were there gaps in training? Were your team members comfortable expressing concerns before it was too late? Where was the oversight lacking? Commit to future training and education of your team.

If it was a problem with your supply chain, it might require a more thorough screening of your vendors. Could locally sourced ingredients allow for greater transparency? Are you able to source from another location that would be safer?

Finally, if you didn’t go through a full recall but instead experienced a near miss, what can you learn from the situation? Rather than seeing an issue to stress over, view it as a chance to right the ship and prevent the problem from future escalation.

Food product recalls can be a significant concern for those in the manufacturing industry. Stay prepared and diligent to ensure you’ve taken all the precautions you need to rest easy. Should the worst happen, you’ll know you have a straightforward process in place to protect consumers and your reputation.