Why is Food Recalled? Top 3 Reasons Recalls Happen & How to Avoid Them

The peanut butter debacle of 2007 is said to have cost parent company ConAgra $78 million to deal with $1 billion worth of potentially Salmonella-contaminated product. And while many significant strides have been made in the last decade to prevent occurrences of this magnitude, companies in the food manufacturing business still experience brand-damaging recalls — some with resounding impacts on both the company and the industry at large.

A recall or contamination outbreak in one of your facilities can carry major implications in terms of cost, reputational damage, compliance penalties and sales declines. These consequences can linger for years after a single event, and companies often require extensive periods of time to recuperate from the aftereffects. All of this points to one fundamental concept: Recall and outbreak prevention is absolutely critical to the success of your business.

With that said, it’s important to understand the reasons why recalls happen in the first place. Most of those that occur within the food industry are associated with the following three types of contamination in the manufacturing and production process. Take a look at how these incidents arise and what your company should be doing to prevent them.

1. Bacterial Contamination

There are over 200 known species of bacteria related to foodborne illnesses. Some of the most prominent ones include SalmonellaE. coli and Listeria, though there are plenty more with names you’ve probably never heard. If an outbreak of any type of pathogen occurs under the watch of your company (from supplier to production and through transport), you could be facing a recall with profound ramifications.  

Very recently, Amrita Health Foods underwent a recall of protein bars containing ingredients supplied by Hudson Valley Foods, which found Listeria in its production facility. The bars were distributed across the U.S., both to retailers and directly to consumers via online sales. Additional products made with sunflower seeds and other ingredients from Hudson Valley Farms have been recalled in the U.S. and Canada in the past few weeks, including three brands of hummus, protein bars, oatmeal and trail mix with organic dates. According to the FDA, Hudson Valley Farms has stopped operations and will not restart without prior notice.

To help your company prevent the production delays, sales plummets, regulatory issues and reputational casualties that a bacterial outbreak like this one could invoke, it’s essential to execute a strong contamination prevention plan, one with dynamic tools to identify pathogens in the production process as quickly as possible.

New software tools designed for the food safety industry are changing the way the industry handles safety initiatives,” says Keegan Ross, Customer Success Manager. In particular, tools that automate the management of the sampling program, data analysis and communication are key for safety.”

The continued success of your brand and your organization hinges on having a plan in place that encompasses every effective measure to identify contamination in your plant and prevent it from recurring — from quick testing methods to strict sanitation procedures and effective communication solutions.

2. Allergen Contamination (Cross-Production)

Last year, 305 food recalls in the U.S. and Canada were caused by undeclared allergens, the leading form of contamination. The biggest offenders included milk, eggs, peanuts and wheat. If there are multiple items being manufactured in one of your production facilities, there’s a real risk of cross-production contamination.

A couple of months ago, the ingredient supplier Newly Weds Foods caused a number of company recalls associated with its cracker meals and blended bread coatings. The recalls were in reaction to the potential presence of undeclared milk from cross-contact during the manufacturing process. More than three million pounds of food were implicated, affecting numerous companies that use the ingredients in their food products.

As the number of people who have a food allergy continues to grow, it’s critical for manufacturers to ensure that their products are not being cross-contaminated by known allergens or mislabeled. Whether the allergen contamination is a result of improper cleaning of machinery or insufficient labeling of ingredients, the recall effects are bound to be costly.

Prevention requires a multi-faceted approach that includes effective hazard controls, meticulous monitoring, efficient and ongoing testing, and a system of corrective actions and verification activities. You must also be able to trace all ingredients and keep thorough, accurate records of food safety-related data.

3. Contamination from Other Residues (Antibiotics, Chemicals, Toxins)

When animals are treated with antibiotics or other chemicals, or produce is treated with pesticides or other toxins, residues from these treatments can linger through the manufacturing process. Sometimes even residues from cleaning solvents can contaminate a product. If proper testing and remediation actions are not implemented on a regular basis, contamination from these residues can lead to a recall.

Back in May, nearly 1,500 pounds of whole, young chickens were recalled from restaurants and retailers in New York because routine FSIS testing found residue of the antibiotic nitrofurazone. The chickens were produced and packaged by Brooklyn-based NY Livestock Market, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection website.

As with other types of contamination prevention, rigorous sanitation and testing are key. The following practices should be employed to ensure a strong prevention effort:

  • Written cleaning procedures that cover how each piece of equipment should be cleaned and sanitized, including specific cleaners, personal protective equipment and instructions for each step, as well as a stringent cleaning schedule
  • Regular self-inspection to assess both contact surfaces and the environment
  • A robust, consistently reinforced and documented training effort
  • Implementation of an automated testing and data management solution that fosters accurate, quick results, as well as immediate and clear communication of those results
  • Adoption of technology that supports visibility of food safety activities and data

Given the massive shift in food safety regulations and the more informed, discerning base of consumers, you can’t afford to take risks with contamination. Many food recalls are extremely difficult — even impossible — to recover from, and they can jeopardize your success for years to come. If prevention hasn’t been at the top of your priority list, it’s time to make a change.   

For more information on the steps, you must take to prevent contamination in your facilities and protect your brand from business-crippling recalls, download your free checklist now.

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