What is it and how should you respond?

A product recall is every grower’s worse nightmare, but with the rash of incidents in recent years, every operation must be prepared. Unfortunately, following Good Agricultural Practices and doing everything right is no impenetrable shield against a possible recall. Therefore, a clear understanding of when a recall may be warranted and what must be done to minimize damage is imperative for growers of any size.

What is a recall?

Tainted spinach and tomatoes have become all too common. It’s no longer unusual to hear of produce and other product recalls regularly on the evening news. While it’s tempting to believe such a disaster can’t befall your farm, United Fresh Produce Association’s (www.unitedfresh.org) Dr. David Gombas urges against such daydreaming.

Growers and processors prepare for possible product recall at a course sponsored by United Fresh Produce Association.

“It’s important for growers to know that they don’t have to do anything wrong to get caught in a recall situation, ” he adds. “Large company or small, every produce company I’ve helped work through a recall has been shocked to discover their product was contaminated.”

Gombas, the association’s senior vice president for food safety and technology, says there is no way to guarantee your produce won’t be subject to a recall, so it’s important to understand what a recall actually is.

When produce enters the market stream, its producer loses legal control, but a contamination may still result. Because it is illegal to ship a tainted product, even unknowingly, the producer is liable—even if no illnesses result.

Although recalls are technically voluntary, no reasonable company will risk its clients and the business itself by failing to alert the public about a potentially dangerous product. If a producer should refuse to recall, a state health agency or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] may distribute media releases to that effect. Some state agencies have the right to confiscate questionable products. Although the FDA is expected to receive mandatory recall authority under pending food safety legislation, that change would have little measurable impact on specific product recalls.

Both state agencies [handling intrastate business] and the FDA [for interstate commerce] are responsible for investigating situations in which they have evidence indicating contamination. These agencies determine if the contamination is real and threatening to the public, whether alerts have been issued and what is being done to prevent a repeat occurrence. They may prosecute the companies involved if there is evidence of wrongdoing. If it is shown that a company is at fault, its higher officer, such as its owner, is personally liable. Individuals have been issued stiff fines and even prison sentences, even if they had no knowledge of the wrongdoing.

Avoiding a recall

Although there is no way to insure your products will never fall into a recall situation, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Gombas says that some preventable recalls have occurred when growers or handlers were too quick to ship. Products tested for pathogens must be held until results are received, but some handlers, recognizing that both contamination risks and shelf life are low, practice a “test and ship” method, that may backfire into a recall. Waiting for the results could have saved the day. It’s also important to remember that one test showing contamination trumps numerous clean tests. Evidence of contamination at any point in the chain will probably warrant a recall.

“The best a company can do is to know their products’ vulnerabilities to contamination and control them to the best of their ability,” Gombas says. “This won’t prevent a recall or eliminate a company’s liability, but the fewer opportunities there are for contamination to occur, the lower the risk of the product being adulterated.”

United Fresh’s services include crop testing.

With proof positive of a tainted product, as documented by two or more lab tests, it’s a no-brainer to announce a recall. The potential damage to consumers and your reputation is too risky to take a chance. However, if the evidence isn’t as clear, it’s a tougher call. Gombas cites some recent occurrences in which produce from distribution centers or retail stores was tested and found to contain pathogens. In those situations, it’s impossible to determine when and where the contamination occurred. It could have been on the farm, at a handling facility, in transit or at its final destination. The brand owner of the questionable product is faced with the difficult decision of issuing a recall and to what extent it should be carried out.

Handling a recall

Since a recall situation may occur for any producer at any time, the best defense is a good offense, and that means being prepared at all times. Growers need to be ready to identify all product that may be affected, determine its location and notify all who may be in possession of it. If it’s suspected that the product is in consumers’ hands, a press release must be issued to alert them to discard or return the item.

“This sounds simple, but I’ve never heard of a recall that wasn’t stressful to a company and, if they aren’t prepared for it, a recall can result in the end of the company, ” Gombas says.

Lisa Watson of Watson/Mulhern interviews a program participant during United Fresh Produce Association’s Training for a Recall, Communicating Under Fire course.

That preparation involves establishing and training a recall team. Gombas stresses that it is vital for each member to be professionally trained. United Fresh is one group offering a two-day course; online resources are available at www.ncsu.edu/fvsi/ncfreshproduce/grower.html and www.wga.com. Your commodity association, cooperative extension agent and land grant university may also offer training.

The team will be led by a decision maker, such as the owner, and will include a person knowledgeable about growing, handling and distribution processes, a legal representative and a communications manager. If in-house staff can’t fill these roles, locate consultants or freelancers to serve on the team.

The team should develop a recall plan and test-drive it once a year. The plan should outline who is responsible for each aspect, what contacts should be made, who will make them and who will decide what to say. Communications with regulatory agencies, customers, the farm’s employees and the media will be needed. Prepare sample messages for each of these audiences that can be tweaked and rolled out when needed; examples are available at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf files/FS/FS10800.pdf. Be sure that all contact information is up-to-date and supplemented with alternative contacts and phone numbers.

Preparing for possible product recall at a course sponsored by United Fresh Produce Association.

“The worst time to develop a recall plan is when you need it. I guarantee that the situation will be stressful and that’s a bad time to start thinking about what to do,” Gombas says.

The thought of speaking with the media about a recall can be frightening, but an affected grower will need reporters to help get the word out. Take your response seriously and prepare in advance with a designated spokesperson and guidelines for responding to questions. Those who find the notion of appearing on television especially intimidating may wish to practice on-camera sessions during the annual preparation process. Still, the backlash may be ongoing.

“A company has to be prepared for the story to not go away,” Gombas adds. “One produce company that experienced a recall, without any associated illnesses, told us they were still dealing with phone calls and media stories six months after the recall.”

The more prepared you are, the less painful the process will be, resulting in minimal disruption to your business. To help maximize your 2010 profits, consider using a bit of your winter downtime to plan for the unthinkable, and regrettably unavoidable, possibility of a product recall.

“Every company has to be prepared for that moment, usually on a Friday afternoon, just before a holiday, when they get a call that says their product has been discovered to be adulterated,” Gombas says.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.