Recalls: staying ahead of the game

2018 State of the Industry Report - Food Safety

Developing and following strict standard operating procedures can prevent food contamination from having more serious consequences.

August 23, 2018

An E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in late 2017 resulted in 210 reported infections, including 96 hospitalizations and five deaths.
Photo: Adobe Stock

May 2017. A Virginia greenhouse recalled 10 lines of packaged produce due to the potential presence of metal as a result of construction at the greenhouse farm.

October 2017. A New York greenhouse recalled assorted greens due to potential presence of E. coli

April 2018. A Canadian greenhouse recalled all its microgreen products due to potential contamination of Listeria monocytogenes.

In each of these incidents, the recall was made out of an abundance of caution when it was discovered that the produce may have been compromised, as no illnesses or injuries were known to have been caused by the contaminations. And for that, the greenhouses are to be commended for discovering the issues and recalling product before consumers were impacted — because any of these could have turned out differently.

For instance, take the two leafy green E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in the U.S. earlier this year. The first, which began in late 2017 and was determined to be closely related genetically to an outbreak in Canada, caused 25 infections in 15 states including nine hospitalizations and one death. There was no product recall in the U.S., however, because the source was never determined. Although the Public Health Agency of Canada eventually identified romaine lettuce as the source of that outbreak, the U.S. was able to state only that the likely source of the outbreak appeared to be leafy greens. This was compounded by the fact that the outbreak was being reported by news channels well before FDA or CDC made any announcements or recommendations for consumption or avoidance of produce.

The second was the E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce, which resulted in 210 reported infections, including 96 hospitalizations and five deaths. While the source was eventually traced to the Yuma, Arizona, region and contaminated canal water implicated in the outbreak, no single farm was identified. The traceback took nearly four months from the onset of the first illness. In neither of the incidents was a specific grower or supply chain facility identified as the source. But the longer it takes to recall product, trace an outbreak and communicate with consumers, the more the entire industry segment is impacted.

This is where the food producer comes into play. While it is the federal agencies that are tasked with tracing contaminated product back to its source, it is the food producer’s responsibility to conduct a timely recall and provide the relevant agency with enough information to enable traceback to the source and trace forward to the point of sale to ensure all customers and consumers are notified. That is not — yet — a legal responsibility. However, rarely does it benefit anyone for any facility to implement only the required minimum in food safety. Rather the more proactive each grower, producer and retailer is, the better will both the consumer and the industry be protected.

While consumer safety should always be the primary objective, it is important to understand the impact a recall can have on the entire segment in which it operates. As reported by Nielsen, the week the news broke (April 14) on the second E. coli contamination:

  • Romaine lettuce sales fell by 20 percent.
  • Iceberg sales were down 19 percent.
  • Red leaf sales were down 16 percent.
  • Endive sales fell 17 percent.

Lessons learned and shared

As evidenced by the recalls discussed, food contamination can be caused by internal, external or unknown factors. Things can happen that one can’t control and doesn’t expect. But, said BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot in a recent Hort Report podcast, “You have to have the SOPs [standard operating procedures] and the cultural factors in place and be ready for these unexpected sources of problems so that you can reduce the likelihood that they are going to happen in the future.”

The podcast, also featuring AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg, focused primarily on a new controlled-environment agriculture coalition, but Lightfoot also discussed BrightFarms’ Virginia and New York recalls.

In both cases, the issue was caused by third-party suppliers. Both were detected and a voluntary recall initiated by BrightFarms, with no detection by retailers, consumers or government. “In both cases, our voluntary testing protocols were successful and identified the problems before there was any risk of problems to consumers that were buying our products at our retailers,” Lightfoot said.

Although AeroFarms has not had a recall, Rosenberg noted his agreement with Lightfoot and the crucial importance, especially when working with big retailers, of “making sure one builds the SOPs in which the response time can be fast,” he said. “Of our about 250 SOPs, half are related to food safety.” These include areas such as holding mock recalls so everyone knows what to do if one should occur, reducing risk from a sanitation standpoint and ensuring that SOPs and design go through the right stage gates.

As also evidenced by the BrightFarms recalls in which the cause was linked to third-party suppliers, such analyses and preparation needs to include that of external conditions as well. One example Rosenberg gave was that of air pollution for urban operations. Greenhouses need to have protocols in place for understanding what’s going on outside and putting in the right filtration (such as HEPA filters) to minimize the effect to the plants, he said.

“It was our recognizing that it was sort of ‘black swan’ things and uncontrollable things happening that made us realize that we should start sharing what we’ve learned with the rest of the industry to reduce the chances that, God forbid, someone would be made ill in the future by someone in the industry,” Lightfoot said.

Hear more about the growers’ sharing of experiences through the CEA coalition here.