Word arrives that a product you manufacture is sickening consumers. A common lot number associated with all packages of the problematic product is discovered. How quickly can you determine where every case of that product is, to whom and when it was shipped, or where it is in your supply chain?
How long will it take to identify every other product you've processed that shares ingredients from the same lots that went into the problem product? Or every package that was processed on the same manufacturing line that same day?
Then, how long will it take for you to notify every customer who received that product and arrange for its return and/or disposition?
For some companies, the answer to these questions is mere minutes, followed by hours. For others, it's a giant question mark.
Yet the answer, in extreme cases, can have dire impacts on the health and safety of consumers and on your company's future. As a cautionary tale, witness the fate of Topps Meat Co., Newark, the now defunct, 67-year-old frozen beef patty processor forced to shutter its doors last fall after a botched response to the second largest beef recall in U.S. history.
No one wants to think the unthinkable will happen to them, but as with any form of insurance, no matter how unlikely the hazard, the key to survival and recovery lies in making the necessary preparations beforehand, just in case. No insurance company will sell you a policy the morning after the hurricane.
"In the event of a recall, you can't ever really mitigate the cost of disposing of the product, or the time involved in dealing with the situation. But by providing accurate information to the public in a very timely manner, you can maintain customer confidence that the company is doing the right thing, that you're prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect consumers. Otherwise, you could end up losing your business," comments Will Daniels, vice president of quality, food safety and organic integrity for Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, CA.
The spate of recall stories in the media over the last few years has no doubt raised awareness among manufacturers and retailers of the risks.
"There is certainly much more interest in discussing what needs to be done to prepare. Companies are realizing that being ready for a recall is one way they can mitigate their risk and properly control the event if it occurs," says Gil Hobson, vice president, sales and client services for Carolina Logistics Services, Winston-Salem, NC, which provides full-service recall management among its portfolio of reverse logistics services.
"The best first step in planning for a recall is to develop a recall protocol," he adds. "Most companies have a Plan A-that is, they assume they will never have a recall."
Plan B, which too many firms never get around to, says Hobson, includes creation of a detailed, written recall protocol plan and the staging of regular mock recalls to give everyone who might be involved in a recall a chance to practice their roles. These dry runs also provide opportunities to identify weak points or gaps in the plan that should be remedied as soon as possible.
"Multiple people within the organization need to be included in the planning, which means anyone that is part of the supply chain," Hobson adds. This includes logistics, marketing, sales, finance, legal, IT and quality assurance.
From Awareness To Action
There's heightened interest in recall readiness these days among manufacturers and others in the food supply chain, say vendors of systems and services that help companies prepare for and deal with recalls. Yet there are still big gaps between discussion and action.
"A recall is an event that has low probability and high consequences. It is this type of situation that companies tend not to prepare for properly. From that standpoint, the recall process probably is no different today than in the past. If a company has experienced a recall, they are sensitive to the impact it can have and will typically put procedures in place based on what they've learned. However, if they haven't experienced a recall, there is a high probability that they don't have a protocol or plan in place," Hobson observes.