USDA Food Recalls: 3 Agriculture Trends That Heighten Your Plant’s Food Recall Risk

There’s a consumer-driven movement happening in the food industry, and it’s impacting the products you bring to market. As people become more informed about health and nutritional realities, interest in eating “clean” foods and maintaining organic diets has surged.

In fact, statistics show that worldwide sales of organic food has risen 500% in the 21st century (from $18 billion in 2000 to $90 billion in 2016). In response, farmers are changing the way they grow and manage their crops. So, what does this shift mean for your plant’s approach to food safety and recall prevention?

It simply means that you should be taking additional steps to ensure that the food you manufacture is safe to consume, especially if you’re migrating away from the chemical means of eliminating bacteria. Consumers care about the sourcing, handling and processing of their foods, which means it’s up to you to ensure that you maintain their trust by delivering safe products.

Here are three trending agricultural factors that are elevating your plant’s food recall risk, as well as expert insight on how to manage this risk effectively.

TREND #1: Decreased Farm Count, Increased Farm Size

The latest data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture shows that the overall number of farms is decreasing, while the average size of those farms is increasing: “The United States had 2.1 million farms in 2012. This was 4 percent fewer than in 2007, continuing a long-term decline in the number of farms … The average size of U.S. farms in 2012 was 434 acres, 4 percent larger than five years earlier.”

Generally speaking, the bigger the farm, the greater its distribution. So, as farm numbers decline and farm sizes grow, there are inevitable impacts on your manufacturing operation with regard to supplier data management and inspection. It’s more important than ever to ensure that your process for receiving raw and fresh food evolves accordingly.

There’s a major correlation between maintaining food safety in your own operations and managing any hazards your suppliers may be introducing as a result of their handling procedures. By implementing a controlled process to regularly assess your food suppliers, you develop greater visibility into potential food safety risks. Visibility and traceability are critical to pinpointing risk-laden issues before they spiral into costly recalls. But, how can the proper level of insight be achieved?

It all starts with data — robust, thorough, up-to-date, well-organized, highly accessible and clearly communicated data. This kind of information management requires an automated software solution that streamlines and facilitates supplier verification and internal food safety. After all, if your customers are demanding products that meet specific standards, you can’t sufficiently deliver on that promise unless you’re harvesting detailed data on its origin, handling, testing and more.  

There’s nothing you can do about the trend in farm numbers and sizes, but there is certainly something you can do to prevent this trend from impacting the quality and safety of the products that leave your facility. Minimize your risk effectively by adopting a smart data management solution that makes real visibility a tangible commodity at your plant.

TREND #2: Product Diversification

As Farm Journal explains, “Agricultural production is becoming more specialized. In 1982, 35% of all farms produced corn, but in 2007 only 22% did because of economies of scale, technological advances and government policy. Today, farmers have diversified with organics, non-GMO products, high-oleic soybeans and high-starch corn.”

What does this trend in product diversification mean for food processing plants? What should managers and quality assurance professionals be most concerned about? The bottom line is manufacturing facilities must be extremely cognizant of and vigilant over the food safety risks posed by the diversification of farm products.

In the organic sector, for example, public perception follows the concept that organic products are safer for consumers than non-organic. However, it often overlooks considerations for hazards like microbial contamination. In fact, Food Safety News reported on a 2016 CDC study that attempted to assess outbreak risk from organic food:

“Using CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, researchers identified 18 outbreaks between 1992 and 2014 that were reportedly caused by organic food products. These outbreaks were linked to 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalizations and three deaths. More than half of the total outbreaks, 56 percent, occurred from 2010-2014, which the study authors note reflects the increasing production and consumption of organically grown food in the United States and around the world …

The most commonly occurring pathogens were Salmonella, responsible for 44 percent of the outbreaks, and E. coli O157:H7, the pathogen in 33 percent of the outbreaks, according to the study. Campylobacter, Clostridium botulinum and the Hepatitis A virus caused one outbreak each.”

While the study concluded that more research was required to link organic foods to higher food safety risks, the point is that manufacturers have a responsibility to develop and enforce strict quality and safety processes to address all types of supplier products.

Again, risk is tightly connected to visibility and data management. The smartest course of action to mitigate food safety and recall risk is to employ a solution that automates and simplifies testing procedures, labeling, data collection, reporting, communication and auditing. Without a high-quality food safety system, you’re less prepared to face the elevated risk of error, oversight and, ultimately, recalls.

TREND #3: Rising Organic Sales = Rising Organic Recalls

An article published by The New York Times highlights a study conducted by Stericycle, which shows a surge in the number of recalls of organic food products:

“Organic food products accounted for 7 percent of all food units recalled so far this year, compared with 2 percent of those recalled last year, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture that Stericycle uses to compile its quarterly report on recalls. In 2012 and 2013, only 1 percent of total units of food recalled were organic. Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, said the growing consumer and corporate demand for organic ingredients was at least partly responsible for the increase.”

Because the rise in organic food recalls can be linked to the rise in organic food sales, there’s no specific reason to blame potential flaws in organic farming. But regardless of the catalyst, the fact remains that recall occurrences are increasing across the spectrum, which means your facility’s risk is increasing. With consumer trust — and major costs — on the line, you can’t afford to take chances with the quality and safety of your plant’s products.

That said, information and awareness is key. You need to understand the potential risk factors that exist within your manufacturing facility, including:  

  • Undeclared Allergens: Milk, eggs, peanuts and wheat are examples of undeclared allergens that continue to cause food recalls. Implement a process that ensures proper labeling of every product, with a list of all ingredients and allergy warnings.
  • Detected Pathogens: You need a pathogen identification plan, supported by a dynamic data tool, to address the risk presented by the 200+ known species of bacteria related to foodborne illnesses.
  • Residue Contamination: From chemicals and antibiotics to toxins from various types of food treatments and cleaning solutions, it’s critical to prevent lingering residues from contaminating your final product. Rigorous sanitation, testing and documentation are fundamental to this effort.

Maintaining CONTROL in an Evolving Landscape

Even though the changing agricultural tide brings new and/or unexpected challenges to manufacturing plants, there’s much hope for staying above water. The secret is adapting your food safety approach to account for these evolving trends. Focus on the following best practices to maintain control over emerging risks.

  • Enforce FSMA or USDA Compliance: Developing and executing an effective and compliant food safety plan involves some of the following elements:
    • Initiating comprehensive, prevention-based controls across the food supply chain  to prevent or significantly minimize the likelihood of problems occurring
    • Instituting a verification process to ensure that foreign and domestic suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place
    • Designing a well-communicated voluntary recall response plan for your organization
    • Maintaining organized, accessible and up-to-date documentation on everything from FSMA and HACCP/HARPC to SOPs, testing results and corrective actions
    • Adopting visibility and communication tools to meet unfolding regulations and enable a strong food safety culture
  • Train Employees: Food safety and compliance doesn’t happen in a silo. Depending on their position and function, each member of your facility should be trained on their role in proactively preventing the threat of a recall, including ongoing awareness and education.
  • Leverage Food Safety Software: True, widespread transparency requires a software solution, like CONTROL-PRO, that facilitates a high level of visibility, communication and data tracking, enabling you to:
    • Visualize critical control points and any other preventive control points on an intuitive floor plan
    • Quickly identify locations and patterns within your food safety plan
    • Communicate quickly and effectively
    • Send automated notifications and alerts
    • Systematize the scheduling of preventative controls and testing
    • Easily access all sampling data, testing results and corrective action records
    • Verify performance
  • Make HARPC Updates: You need an up-to-date Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC) to proactively address food safety hazards, but too many facilities aren’t aware that they need to update this critical plan every time something changes. Consider having an HARPC and food safety team that meets on a regular basis to assess problems and implement revisions.
  • Facilitate Documentation: From the history and results of test points to the corrective actions applied to remediate problems, having a dynamic documentation process is critical. Make sure you’re conducting a formal process for collecting and utilizing detailed, efficient, accessible documentation.
  • Automate Reporting: There’s no denying that manual reporting systems are labor-intensive, error-prone and stressful. They cause major challenges and increase risks to your operation. Switch to fully automated reporting so you can make informed decisions based on the tracking and trending of various data components, including:
    • Quantitative and qualitative testing data
    • Pathogenic and hygienic testing data
    • Indicator organisms, allergens, toxins, residue, etc.

Learn more about reducing food safety and recall risk, and get valuable recall prevention guidance by accessing your free informational kit now.


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