United Day 2: Food safety front and center

May 17, 2013

Everywhere you turned during the second and final day of the United Fresh 2013 trade show and convention in San Diego, people were talking about food safety.

But no one spoke of what can happen during a recall more movingly than Nelia Alamo, director of sales and marketing for Gills Onions. Her memories of a food recall incident were fresh — her company’s recall incident took place nearly a year ago, or shortly after United Fresh 2012 concluded in Dallas.

“It changed my life,” she said of the time of crisis that started with the first phone calls and reports of health problems associated with Gills products. “It was scary . . . downright scary.”

As she was describing these harrowing days, the emotion in Alamo’s voice was palpable. The phone was ringing off the hook, and none of the callers were bearers of good news. Many of the callers were genuinely fearful for their health. It was proof that food recalls are frightening for everyone involved, from the grower all the way to the consumer.

The goal of the produce industry is simple: eliminate problems with bacterial contamination of the product. But until that goal is reached, recalls will be a part of life. When a food safety incident blows up (and I’ve had more than one person tell me that these things always happen on Friday afternoon), companies need to have a plan and a response team in place.

That’s why the United Fresh Recall Ready program was officially launched on the second day of the show. It offers four pieces of a preparation and response plan (services which are purchased from United). The United team will review a company’s current recall plan, create a recall plan and conduct mock recall training.

Then if the worst should happen, United will have a rapid response team in action. Under this plan, United will establish a 24/7 recall hotline, consultation with recall experts and a discount on legal services.

Recall response includes the key piece of crisis communication, being prepared and maintaining a consistent message. Key facts about the situation need to be clearly communicated to everyone within the company and to customers and potential customers outside the company. However a company handles it, a food recall response plan must be instilled in all company personnel through intense education and training, to the point where the response is almost instantaneous.

“It has to be rote,” said Tony Freytag, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Crunch Pak Sliced Apples. “It has to be something you’re instinctively doing.”

Lee Dean, editorial director