Recalls on the Rise

January 12, 2019

Recalls on the Rise

Understanding today's food recall epidemic

By Kelly Smith

You know the drill. Empty grocery shelves. Doomsday headlines. Illusive status updates. Such is the nature of a food recall. In 2018 alone, two E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce left five dead and over 100 individuals hospitalized. Meanwhile, a salmonella outbreak in raw beef sickened 246 people and led to 12 million pounds of recalled beef products.

Even more disturbing than the sheer pervasiveness of product recalls are the difficulties companies seem to have with identifying and isolating the source of contamination. Questions about the recent romaine recall were met with ambiguity that prolonged fear factor for customers. Where did the contamination originate? How many heads of lettuce were affected? When were customers finally in the clear?

Recalls continue to rise. According to a recently-released report published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, between 2013 and 2018, meat and poultry recalls increased by two-thirds, and overall food recalls increased by 10 percent. Contrary to common belief, recalled items aren’t limited to meat products and fresh produce. In fact, in 2018, Ritz Crackers, Goldfish, and Swiss Rolls were all recalled in a single week.

What has led to the increase in food recalls? What can manufacturers do to prevent the prolific rates of recalls from continuing? And in the event of a recall, how can food producers speed the time to resolution?

Longer, More Complex Supply Chains

It wasn’t long ago that the pathway from farm to table was much shorter—with the majority of food originating in relatively close proximity to where it was sold and consumed. Today, that is no longer the case. Instead, consumers increasingly prefer a wide variety of adventurous food products, often impossibilities in local growing conditions. In fact, “the adventurous consumer” was crowned the top trend in 2018 by Innova Market Insights. Additionally, consumers want ready-to-eat-meals and out-of-season foods year-round, challenging the food supply chain to keep foods accessible, fresh, and safe longer than ever before.

Such consumer demands have led to longer, more complex food supply chains. With more steps in the process, there are inherently more opportunities for errors. Every instance a food product is handled represents an opportunity for contamination—whether it be products rising above safe handling temperatures, to cross-contamination, to the introduction of a potential allergen. On top of all of this, food manufacturers are handling a greater volume of products than ever before. Together, the lengthening supply chain and growing volume of products represent a perfect storm for product recalls.

Together, the

lengthening supply chain and growing volume of products

represent a perfect storm for product recalls.

Fewer, Generalist Manufacturers

While in yesteryear, the supply chain was marked by a large number of specialized food producers, today’s global food landscape has resulted in fewer, larger distributors. Inherent to a more concentrated and generalist supply chain is a more pervasive problem in the event of a compromise. For instance, as a direct result of the romaine lettuce outbreak at the end of 2018, cauliflower and some additional lettuce products also needed to be recalled due to potential cross-contamination during production.

And with a greater variety of food, comes a greater variety of data. Larger, heterogeneous manufacturers naturally make it harder to isolate contaminated products. Even after a contaminated product is identified, experts often struggle to pinpoint the origin of the problem, whether it be at the farm or the distribution facility or the grocery store—or any stop in between. Integral to these experts’ analyses is the ability to track each product both individually and collectively, and therefore be able to make intelligent associations that support greater isolation and resolution. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of manufacturers lack access to this kind of data, which is key to minimizing damage to public health, brand image, and the bottom line.

However, with scalable, technology-enabled traceability that spans the supply chain,

manufacturers can finally take a more proactive and informed role

in the product vetting and recall process.

The Need for Better Detection

At the heart of the increase in food recalls are regulatory agencies more successfully identifying and notifying the public of contaminated products. This is due in no small part to increasingly advanced technology, which makes recalls easier to spot and the public easier to notify.

But while regulatory agencies have successfully harnessed technological breakthrough to notify the public of compromised products, few manufacturers have fully adopted advanced technologies to mitigate recalls in their own environments. However, with scalable, technology-enabled traceability that spans the supply chain, manufacturers can finally take a more proactive and informed role in the product vetting and recall process.

Reversing the Rising Tide of Food Recalls

Better than more effective recall detection is the elimination of recalls altogether. While that may seem like a distant possibility in today’s context, the right technology can bring this goal within reach by empowering manufacturers to:

  • Address Contamination Proactively by answering ‘What products may have been contaminated or cross-contaminated, and should therefore be recalled?’
  • Address Contamination in the Past by answering, ‘What was the origin of contamination in the first place?’ and ‘At what stage of the supply chain did it occur?’
  • Address Contamination in the Future by answering ‘How can we put the safeguards in place to ensure this never happens again?’

ProLinc®, by Ashton Potter, is taking the lead in the quest to eliminate food recalls for good. By affixing unique, serialized identities to each item and seamlessly tracking items from the field, to the factory, and the fork, ProLinc® provides manufacturers a complex genealogy for each and every good in the supply chain.

By integrating data about field and factory conditions, ProLinc® immediately calls out prospective sources of contamination so that food and beverage factory operators can resolve issues in real time—preventing compromised products from ever making their way to the market. In the unfortunate event of a recall, identifying the problem becomes as simple as a single scan, which serves up highly detailed product and batch level data to reveal every product affected.

It’s time to make recalls a thing of the past. Let ProLinc® lead the way.

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