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.
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).
Grocery industry organizations have recently taken steps to make sure the recall notification process is more standardized. For example, in March FMI, the National Grocers Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and GS1 US introduced Rapid Recall Express, a downloadable form used to provide standardized information when reporting a recall. The form can then be sent to all the necessary recipients up and down the chain.
"The inspection rate of food is declining, not going up. So you would expect more outbreaks and recalls, and there are."
"Rapid Recall Express is a better approach to effectively and efficiently communicate product recall information," according to Mark Baum, FMI's chief collaboration officer. "The new system was created to have one 'version of the truth' utilizing leading practices and GS1 Standards for more efficient and effective product recall notifications."
Retailers are typically notified within 30 minutes by suppliers when a recall occurs, but the FMI maintains a list of recalls on its website as well, at www.fmi.org/food-safety/recalls
"We rely on our national suppliers to get recall notices to us," Golub says. "And the FMI is an excellent partner. Their website helps us determine the status of a recall."
Once Price Chopper learns of the recall, it alerts its loyalty club members as quickly as possible, but that's just the beginning.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time there are customers who bought the recalled product but had not signed up for AdvantEdge, so we feel obligated the get the word out there in other ways," Golub says.
Among the other ways grocery retailers can alert shoppers about recalled products are press releases sent to local media, recall notices posted on the stores' websites, and signs posted in stores. It is also common for retailers to block their POS systems from completing a transaction for a recalled product. Smartphone shopping apps also provide the potential for sharing recall information.
Preventing recalls in the first place is the ideal scenario, and recent technology innovations do exactly that, improving visibility and quality control throughout the supply chain so that fewer contaminated or otherwise recall-prone products ever reach retailers' shelves.
"Our position in the marketplace is, 'Let's do everything we can to protect ourselves from recalls'" Fields explains.
To achieve that goal, Fields' company developed ReposiTrak as a means to analyzes the mountains of documentation that exists in the food supply chain to ensure that a retailer's suppliers are compliant with food safety and supply chain requirements.
Sometimes retailers need a more tangible connection to the supply chain than documentation. Zebra Technologies provides handheld devices that provide a stream of information, such as temperature and location, about products in the supply chain.
"Grocery retailers are interested in perishables because that's their highest-margin department," explains Tom Moore, industry lead for the retail and hospitality industry at Zebra. "But perishables create additional food safety requirements, and for many of them that's still a very manual, clipboard process. They're doing refrigeration temperature checks, recording them on a clipboard, making sure they're in scope. When it comes to prepared foods, there are HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) requirements. They typically go around with a probe that provides a temp readout, write that on a piece of paper, then put that in a binder, and someone comes along a month later and inspects it."
That manual process leaves lots of room for mistakes, so Zebra has developed a system that provides real-time information using automated sensors. For example, its "smart" refrigeration units can provide temperature data that is fed into a dashboard so the retailer can get a useful view of the situation.
"We also provide the ability to capture information about raw ingredients and finished goods in the supply chain using barcode scanning or RFID tags," Moore says. "We can capture information about a product, including what its status was from manufacturing to distribution to the retailer's distribution center to the store. So if there's a recall they have complete audit visibility of that product."
The tools and procedures involved in food recalls have evolved dramatically in recent years to keep pace with an issue that continues to grow in importance.
"(Food safety) is moving more and more into the forefront," Moore says. "Retailers are taking a really hard look at this and looking at it holistically. They recognize that they can control their own supply chain."