Casting a Wider Food Safety Net

July 5, 2016

Grocery Headquarters | July 5, 2016 – Clif Bar Nuts & Seeds Energy Bars. Pictsweet Cut Green Beans. Gold Medal All Purpose Flour. Dr. Praeger’s Black Bean Veggie Burgers.

These are not items a contestant can choose from on the Price Is Right Grocery Game, but instead just a few of the most recent products recalled for food safety issues, according to the government website Recall reasons included possible contamination by salmonella, listeria or e. coli. Other products have been recalled for undeclared allergens, like milk and peanuts, and material contaminants, like the shards of glass that may have been in jars of Walgreens’ Nice brand private label mandarin oranges.

“We don’t live in a perfect world, and despite best intentions, recalls are almost inevitable,” says John Reilly, senior director, global quality assurance for Daymon Worldwide, a Stamford, Conn.-based private label retail services provider. “That said, it’s imperative to take measures to prevent them, and more importantly, minimize the damage and financial impact of losing sales, time and people resources. If recall situations aren’t handled properly, damage can also include serious loss of market share and, in some cases, irrevocable damage to brand image.”

Damage can be minimalized or eliminated if the brand owner acts in a transparent manner, fully explaining to consumers why a recall is occurring, what products are impacted and what should be done with the affected product, Reilly says.

“It’s only when companies try to cover up a situation or expand the depth of a recall, that they may be perceived as hiding the truth,” Reilly says. “In this case, brands can lose the most valuable consumer connection—trust.”

According to industry observers, manufacturers and retailers need to always be on the alert should a recall be necessary.

“Making sure you have plans in place for recalls is very important,” says Dr. Matthew Seeger, professor and dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University in Detroit. “Having people who are prepared to serve the communication function, whether that’s a PR person, PR agency or a risk management person, is really important.”

When a recall happens, it is important for retailers to reach consumers as soon as possible, preferably by using frequent shopper data, Seeger says. “It is very difficult to do that, and unfortunately most of our recall messages to reach the final consumer end up to be a photocopy of a bad email string that is taped to a frozen food compartment door,” he says. “That’s a very ineffective way to disseminate information.”

Every retailer should have a documented product recall manual and a formal, current crisis management plan, says Reilly. “Communication is key, particularly during a recall situation when so much focus is placed on getting products off the shelf as quickly as possible,” he says. “Consumers need to know exactly how they’ll be impacted and when the situation is under control. Adequate planning is essential to ensure that the recall process is clearly communicated and effectively implemented.”

Retailers may want to team with a company like Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS, which streamlines the entire recall process, including notification and response, processing and tracking, and compliance and recording across a wide range of industries.

“One of the biggest challenges for retailers is ensuring all affected product is removed from the shelves,” says Kevin Pollack, vice president of recalls at Indianapolis-based Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS. “Many recalls involve specific lot numbers and dates, and sorting through those can be a challenge. We have a nationwide team of field force representatives who are able to visit locations to pull only the affected product. That is better than removing entire brands, which leaves shoppers with fewer options. For retailers with a strong internal process in place, we are able to perform effectiveness checks to ensure that all recalled items have been removed. This step can help protect the public as well as the business from costly brand damage.”

Multiplier effect

A single compromised ingredient can prompt a major recall, Pollack says.

“We are seeing a significant increase in what we call the multiplier effect—when a recall of one ingredient has a ripple effect across many brands and products,” Pollack says. “The cumin spice recall of 2015 is one example and in May we saw a seed recall that rapidly increased in scope to impact a number of well-known food brands that use seeds in their products.”

Despite the recent spate of high profile product recalls that have been in the news—like the recall of dozens of name brand and private label conventional and organic frozen vegetables and fruits produced by CRF Frozen Foods, based in Pasco, Wash., and distributed to retailers including Costco, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Safeway, Fiesta Mart and even USDA brand corn, green beans and peas—observers say the situation is not as dire as one would think.

“Our food chain is actually getting safer,” says Darin Zehr, general manager, Commercial Food Sanitation, an Intralox company based in Harahan, La. that integrates strategic consulting, expertise and training to provide durable solutions to food safety and sanitation challenges for food processing plants. “It is probably safer now than it has ever been, but with the new abilities around testing and identifying issues, the illnesses and recalls that are identified are probably trending up.”

Product testing, for example, is continually getting more accurate.

“The technology around testing is growing by leaps and bounds and that can help on the preventative side,” Zehr says. “The sanitation and food safety preventative programs not only need to be strong, but the execution of them needs to be flawless every day. It is critical that the people within the plants get trained properly, have the right technical knowledge and are very passionate around food safety.”

HAVI Global Solutions (HGS) consults with food manufacturers and guides them regarding safe food processing technologies, packaging and supply chain practices to ensure safety. The Downers Grove, Ill.-based company closely follows and counsels customers with regard to food safety regulations, says Brian Wagner, vice president, consulting solutions, Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions, at HGS.

“HGS leverages its relationships and deep expertise in packaging and supply chain to promote food safety for our customers and their customers,” Wagner says. “Our Holistic Packaging by Design process breaks down silos within organizations and promotes collaboration across functions and departments. In this way, food scientists, process engineers, packaging professionals and others are working together to identify issues and develop solutions that result in safer products.”

HGS also holds a Future of Packaging consortium every three years to discuss food safety and related technologies 10 to 20 years in the future.

“Detection is definitely much better than it has been in the past,” says Deidre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, a Chicago-based national non-profit organization with a mission dedicated to preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens.

“When I go in and look at the number of cases of listeria, culturally confirmed cases by the CDC, they’ve been about the same over the last few years, but when it comes to outbreaks, the CDC listed two outbreaks in 2015, and so far in 2016 they’ve listed four already,” she says, adding that it is important to remember that many food poisoning incidents are not reported.

“With listeria you don’t see as many incidences as you do with salmonella or other pathogens, but close to 95 percent of the people who are diagnosed with listeria are hospitalized and 30 percent die, so it is much more deadly than other infections,” Schlunegger says.

Foodborne pathogen incidences can be reduced when retailers and manufacturers are very vigilant about testing, she adds. “Really it comes down to the companies making sure they have a very, very strong food safety culture and commitment to food safety in their company, all the way down from the CEO to frontline employees. That is really the most critical piece,” she says.


Scrutiny will be tightening up under new regulations that are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) being implemented by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Before the FSMA the FDA did not have the authority to issue mandatory recalls,” says Debra Strauss, professor of business law at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. “It was only a matter of recommending voluntary recalls with the initiative on the plants to do that. Expanding the FDA’s authority to issue recalls, do inspections and promulgating these additional rules require things that are more preventative. That is the focus of the FSMA that is most significant.”

Newer processing methods and innovations promise to reduce incidences of recalls and foodborne illness even further.

Sealed Air Corp. has developed a Bulk Cheese Portion Pull wrapping for deli cheeses that allows clerks to pull off one section of Cryovac plastic wrapping at a time. “The clerk then slices that section and the rest stays on nice and tight and doesn’t dry out or spoil,” says Jerry Kelly, national business development manager – Retail Task Force Food Care at Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air Corp.

“For meats, our Cryovac Grip & Tear helps with food safety because otherwise clerks will have to use a knife to open all of their different meat packages, leading to cross-contamination,” Kelly says.

An increasing number of manufacturers of deli products, juices, guacamole and hummus are turning to HPP (High Pressure Processing) where packaged foods are placed in a container that is filled with water and pressurized up to 87,000 PSI, killing bacteria by rupturing them, and thus extending shelf life.

“HPP is very effective with spoilage organisms—listeria, salmonella and e. coli,” says Jeff Barnard, president of Universal Pasteurization and Cold Storage, based in Lincoln, Neb., and operating four HPP facilities across the country. “With HPP we can at least double the shelf life and in some cases increase it by seven or eight times.”

Currently a $10 billion business, data shows HPP will grow to $54 billion by 2025. “It is really a growing market,” Barnard says. “Millennials are going to cleaner labels. They read the labels and they want less ingredients.”

To take advantage of the growing “grocerant” movement, many retailers have been beefing up the prepared foods offered in their commissaries. One area that can harbor germs and other contaminants is the continuous flow dipper well, the basin filled with flowing water where utensils are rinsed between uses.

“The problem is that tons of water flow through the well the entire time a restaurant or commissary is open,” says Brent Henschel, CFSP, marketing communications director, at Server Products, based in Richfield, Wis.

That prompted Server Products to develop the Conservewell, which instead of using running water heats its water up to north of 140 degrees. “That is high enough to prevent bacteria from growing,” says Henschel. “Some of our units even have alarms that alert kitchen personnel when it is time to replace the water when it starts getting dirty.”

Pamela Sweeten, food and beverage business development manager at Shepard Bros., a La Habra, Calif.-based manufacturer and distributor of cleaning and sanitation products, says at most retailers, food safety is literally going down the drain.

“When was the last time you cleaned your drain?” she asks. “Retailers need to make sure their drains are clean because that is a great location for listeria to live. When you are hosing off your equipment and the water goes down the drain, if that water splashes back up on the equipment then you have cross-contamination.”

It is a good idea to regularly have your drain swabbed to see what is actually living down there, she says. “If we don’t test, we don’t know what is there or what the status is,” Sweeten says. “Sometimes people take the attitude that ‘I don’t want to test because I don’t want to know. If I find something then what is going to happen?’”

Sweeten, a self-described food safety advocate who washes her reusable shopping bags weekly and has given a licking to an ice cream parlor server who prepared a cone without gloves on her hands, says consumers also need to take a much greater role in food safety.

“When you are buying groceries you should definitely go straight home. Don’t make any pit stops,” she says. “And when you get home put it straight in the refrigerator, not on the counter for a half-hour and then in the refrigerator. At some point we need to quit blaming the farmer who grew the food and we all need to look at what we’re doing and how it is being done.”

That is becoming even more important with online shopping.

“With the increase of refrigerated and frozen shipments to consumer doorsteps, technology that can maintain and monitor the temperature of products over time is crucial,” says Wagner. “Active and intelligent packaging is starting to appear in this area where there are spoilage indicators for perishables like milk, meat and fruits. For example, VTT has developed a food spoilage sensor in an RFID tag on packaging that can detect ethanol in the headspace of food packaging. This is important since ethanol is emitted by food when it spoils.”

Trucking companies have been making efforts to improve the efficiency of the temperature inside their trailers.

“The safe, efficient and reliable transportation of food is a critical link within the cold chain to ensure food maintains a safe temperature as it moves from farming or fishing to the fork,” says Christopher Nitz, regional segment manager at Danfoss, a manufacturer of HVAC equipment based in Baltimore. “Extreme ambient temperatures and the need to withstand extremely harsh conditions with high humidity can cause temperatures to spike, posing a serious risk to food freshness and safety—as well as to fuel efficiency.”

Both retailers and consumers are benefiting from web-enabled cold chain monitoring. “Real-time food container temperature monitoring and alarms, 24/7 access to data, and comprehensive reports are available today,” Nitz says. “Retailers should become familiar with the type of information available from their current refrigerated transport providers and be ready to discuss additional hardware and service options which will provide high confidence in both food safety and quality.”

Digi International, based in Minnetonka, Minn., is one such provider with its Digi Honeycomb, a wireless sensor solution focusing on temperature monitoring of perishable foods throughout the cold chain. The sensors communicate to a gateway that captures the data and puts it on the cloud where the customer can go and pull reports.

“Our customers find that they can reduce their labor costs,” says Jamie Williams, general manager, Digi Cold Chain Solutions division. “The industry right now is very manual and pen and paper driven with somebody walking around every few hours and taking the temperature of all of the cases. Our completely automated solution takes away that process.”

Honeycomb-shaped and about the size of a quarter, the sensors have a range of 300 square-feet and can be easily installed by store personnel or Digi associates. “Our system is real-time alerting,” Williams says. “Compliance reports are built into it for public health and safety for HACCP reporting as well as FSMA reports as well. All of this data can be sent to a cellphone, tablet or computer. A store manager can get alerts or know of anything going wrong for frozen, refrigerated or even ambient air in real time.”

The SureCheck system from PAR Technology, another cloud-based food safety solution, uses a cell phone-like device to guide employees through temperature checklists throughout the store, and also eliminates the need for paper and pencil. “In essence, it enforces and drives the culture of food safety,” says John Sammon III, senior vice president, general manager of SureCheck at PAR Technology Corp., based in New Hartford, N.Y. “The laws say you have to be temping your proteins accordingly, so fish, chicken, beef and pork have requirements and have to be probed to confirm they have been cooked to a sufficient level. Doing that manually with a paper and pencil is ridiculously challenging.”

SureCheck has prevented several potential tragedies, Sammon says.

“Once around Thanksgiving we found turkeys that were not held at temperature. They were on the sales floor and through the technology we were able to determine that all of those turkeys had to be scrapped,” Sammon says.

McKees Rocks, Pa.-based 5 Generation Bakers, the manufacturer of Jenny Lee Swirl Bread and other breads, has installed several safety devices at its new plant, housed in a former Bottom Dollar supermarket, including 42 security cameras throughout the premises and key fobs on all entrances. The company also uses third-party audits. One was for Costco, which requires audits to be approved as a vendor. “We scored 100 percent on it,” says Scott A. Baker, 5 Generations president.

Still, Baker and others say that a perfect score is not always the best when it comes to food safety.

“When inspectors from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Allegheny County came in to inspect our brand new facility, they had to find something. The auditors feel that if they don’t find something wrong that they didn’t do their job,” Baker says. “They will stay until they find something.”

“When an auditor comes in and sees a SureCheck System they are really happy and look to see if you had an issue and did you address it,” says Sammon. “What an auditor doesn’t want to see is a perfect record. If nothing has ever been temped incorrectly and there hasn’t been a problem at all over the last two years, no one is going to believe that.”

Retailers have to continually assure consumers that food safety is important to them, says Seeger of Wayne State. “We are pretty much used to the occasional recall and that won’t necessarily affect the brand of the retailer,” he says. “But if they don’t appear to be taking it seriously then I think the company risks damaging their brand and image.”

Fairfield University’s Strauss says the strengthening of laws with FSMA are placing a preventative focus on the food chain. “Hopefully in time there will be fewer needs for recalls and we will have more effective recalls,” she says.

Seek & Destroy Champion

There has not been a significant outbreak of listeria in packaged processed meats in more than a dozen years, thanks in large part to the team led by John N. Butts, Ph.D., vice president of research at Land O‘Frost, which developed the “Seek & Destroy” process that has since been adopted across the meat industry.

For his work, Butts was the 2016 Food Safety Leadership Awards Recipient for Lifetime Achievement from NSF International, the leading certifier of Global Food Safety schemes among the agriculture, processing, food equipment, restaurant and retail industries for more than 70 years. The award recognizes leaders within the food industry who have made significant contributions to advancing food safety.

Butts was selected for his role as a food safety advocate and food processing scientist with more than 40 years of experience creating innovative food protection solutions.

“We are incredibly proud to have Dr. John Butts as a member of the Land O’Frost family for many years and we have benefited greatly from his wisdom, passion and deep commitment to innovation,” says David Van Eekeren, president and CEO of Munster, Ind.-based Land O’Frost, a manufacturer of pre-sliced, prepackaged lunchmeats and specialty sausage products. “His impact on the greater food industry, including his work to champion the policy of sharing best practices across companies, cannot be overstated. It is truly fitting that he be honored with this award.”

Butts commissioned the team that developed Land O’Frost’s “Seek & Destroy” (S&D) process to identify and destroy Listeria monocytogenes growth niches. That process has since been adopted across the meat industry in partnership with the North American Meat Institute. S&D entails regularly disassembling machinery for cleaning to eliminate pathogens that may grow and harbor inside the guts of the machinery. At Land O’Frost, the team meets weekly at every plant to address potential food safety issues.

Butts also introduced technologies to minimize transfer within high-risk areas and implemented Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) well before they became mandated by the USDA. He has also helped numerous other companies integrate scientific principles and food technology in real-world manufacturer settings to enhance food safety, assure product quality and deliver efficient solutions.

In 2012, Butts established Food Safety By Design, LLC, a private consulting firm that helps producers of high risk products learn how to prevent and manage food safety risks.

“The processed meat industry has not had a listeria outbreak or illness associated with a federally inspected meat product since 2003,” Butts says. “That’s a tremendous safety record.”

Butts notes that AMI voted in 2001 to make food safety non-competitive.

“Frankly we need to challenge the rest of the food industry to take that approach,” he says. “That’s really the secret that needs to be told because when we get creative people thinking about simple solutions, they can be applied and proven in many industries. I am now doing work outside of the meat industry frankly because the meat industry has gotten it right, and we are finding things that work in stone fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, fish and other products. We got some pretty ugly scars that we can certainly share and hopefully help companies in other fields make their foods safer.”

Butts adds, “I am deeply indebted to the Van Eekeren family for allowing me the freedom to create a food safety culture that really has enabled us throughout my career to create very safe products.”

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