Food recall trends and the role of social media

Figures taken from the recall enforcement reports issued by the United States FDA show that the number of food recall events has generally been rising in the country since 2014.

Last year, 21 million pounds (about 955,000 kg) of meat was recalled by the US authorities. In Europe the numbers of food safety notifications recorded in the RASFF (rapid alert system for food and feed) indicate a decrease since 2011. But within the overall decrease, the number of alerts at the highest level of severity has actually been rising.

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"I think it's [the event's] great, because of the people in the audience today, and the speakers. It's a lot about what's spoken in the forum itself, a lot of, as usual, chatter over the coffee, which allows people to network and share ideas, for the improvement of the industry."

Australia has also experienced an increase in the number of food recalls over the last few years. There are several probable reasons for the upward recall trend. Tighter regulation and manufacturers’ own stricter safety standards make it more likely than hitherto that problems will be detected and tackled. But globalised business creates supply chains that are extremely complex and lack transparency. So a safety problem arising with a supplier at an early point in the chain might not be observed until the product is on the market, despite higher safety standards overall.

Contamination is the major cause of recall and most commonly takes the form of pathogenic microorganisms like Salmonella, Listeria and mycotoxin-producing moulds. Found on cereals, grain, grapes and all sorts of processed products, the mycotoxins are very dangerous, can be highly carcinogenic in one form, and are the reason for many recalls in Europe and elsewhere. This year there have also been high-profile food industry cases of contamination by foreign bodies, including plastic, glass, wood and metal. These can originate in processing equipment, especially if it is poorly maintained, so that bits literally break off or screws and nuts fall out – into the food products. These contaminants can also be brought into production areas on the clothing or shoes of operatives.  Good equipment maintenance, keeping the working environment clean and raising staff awareness and vigilance are obvious countermeasures.

If contaminated food passes undetected through the value chain to the consumers, they will complain, and the social media enable them to complain very loudly. Manufacturers and retailers welcomed Facebook, Twitter and other social media as vehicles for direct engagement with the customers and for improving marketing opportunities. But the other side of the social media coin is that they enable anybody to say anything and be heard by vast numbers of people. Complaints against companies, whether justified and fairly expressed or not, can go out to much of the world in seconds and do severe reputational damage. Hacking is another danger: there have been cases where hackers have hijacked a company’s Twitter account and put out false tweets. Food manufacturers need crisis managers who really understand the risks and opportunities associated with social media and how those channels can be used when a crisis hits. A single team must be deployed that understands and can present the whole picture.

Summary of Vince Shier's presentation at the Centre's Food safety event in October 2016. Shier is Managing Director at the RQA Group. Summary written by Jeffrey Barnes.