For Safety, Prevention Preferred, But Tech Helps
PrintFor Safety, Prevention Preferred, But Tech Helps
By Ed Avis
 A fragmented and fast-moving supply chain means more food recalls. Retailers are dealing with it, often with the help of technology. 

When leaders at Price Chopper and Market 32 Supermarkets decided to recall cartons of Central Market Classics Chocolate Ice Cream last April because it was cross-contaminated with strawberries, a potential allergen, their first move was to notify shoppers in their AdvantEdge loyalty card program who had purchased the ice cream.

"Our SoundBite notification program calls our customers who bought a recalled product and leaves a voicemail message that tells them what product is being recalled and why it is being recalled, and gives them a number to call for more information," explains Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer services for the Golub Corporation, which owns 168 Price Choppers and Market 32 Supermarkets in the Northeast U.S.

Golub's SoundBite program is one example of a tool a grocery retailer can use to notify customers about recalls, but the actual contacting of customers is just one step in a process that reaches throughout the supply chain. As numerous rules spelled out in Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) kick in over the coming years, new challenges have emerged regarding how retailers manage recalls and other food safety issues.

GROWING PROBLEM

From cilantro tainted by E. coli to elevated lead levels in turmeric powder, retailers and their customers are bombarded with notices about products that may pose a variety of hazards, some potentially deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year one in six Americans contract a foodborne illness resulting in 3,000 deaths. 

There are several reasons that recalls have become more prevalent. For one, the complexity of supply chains means there are more potential entry points for foodborne contaminants. Another trend that has increased food recalls is the increased popularity of organic, locally grown produce. With an increased number of small producers sending tomatoes and carrots into the supply chain, the potential for inadequate control grows. That's not to say big farms are immune to problems; critics regularly complain about cross-contamination from various parts of a farm and inadequate space for livestock. Add big foreign growers that are harder to observe into the mix, and it's easy to see why lawmakers felt a new regulatory framework was needed.

SUPPLY CHAIN RISK

"What's happened as more and more food is imported and as localization has taken hold, is we've created more risk in our supply chain," says Randy Fields, CEO of Park City Group, which offers ReposiTrak software to help retailers and suppliers comply with supply chain regulations. "The inspection rate of food is declining, not going up. So you would expect more outbreaks and recalls, and there are. Beyond that there is the concern among food scientists that we've been lucky, in that most pathogens in food are relatively benign. The fear is that they are becoming more deadly."

Another reason recalls are up is because reporting is better.

"The FDA's Reportable Food Registry, which was established in 2007, made it a requirement for any company that knows about anything that might cause harm to public health to report it within 24 hours," explains Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).