( Photo courtesy Bruce Peterson )

At retail, product recalls can take various levels of sensitivity. A product recall could be simply a labeling error of some sort. And while that needs to be corrected, it doesn’t necessarily represent a health or safety risk. But when the Food and Drug Administration, or other regulatory body, issues a broad warning on an item like romaine, this takes on a totally different level of sensitivity. 

All product recall issues — which, at their core, are traceability issues — center around 3 important things: identify, isolate, communicate. And the important aspect in all of that is speed.

Identify — Obviously the first issue is determining what product is affected. In the case of a packaged item, this can be direct. Generally, packaged items have a UPC number that is unique to that item. But in the case of romaine, it’s often sold in an unpackaged, bulk format. It’s also an ingredient in many other items such as packaged salads, deli sandwiches, and other foodservice offerings.  

The other challenge is that because produce production is so fragmented, it’s often difficult to determine precisely what product has been affected. So, retailers are placed in the position of having to broadly define what needs to be addressed. This is the single biggest challenge that the produce industry faces with regard to product traceability — identifying the exact product. 

Isolate — The next step is to isolate the product of concern from the rest of the product in that offering. In the case of a packaged item that has a UPC, this is simple. Today’s cash registers can place a “stop sale” on an item — if a consumer does bring that item to the cash register, the cashier will not be able to ring that item up. 

When an item such as romaine becomes an issue, once again an added level of complexity arises. PLU codes can be keyed as a “stop sale” item as well, but sometimes the product has not been banded or marked with the number. As an ingredient, this can involve a significant number of items that cross various departments. 

The other concern is to isolate the product regardless of where it is in the supply chain. We’ve discussed the product that is on the sales floor, but the product in the backroom coolers, the warehouse, and any product in transit must also be secured. The key factor in all of this is to isolate the product before it gets into the hands of a consumer. 

Communicate — This is the final step. In the case of a product recall, the product under concern is communicated quickly. In the case of romaine, this took on national significance given the broad FDA announcement. But because of the challenges involved in identification and isolation, there is a painfully long period of confusion as to just what the situation is. 

At retail, it’s generally the case that they will stop carrying the item until communication can restore confidence with the consumers. And as we have seen in so many product recalls concerning fresh fruits and vegetables, this can take many weeks, if not months to resolve. 

Our opportunity in the produce industry continues to be in the area of traceability. We already see the government beginning to take steps to require specific labeling. But effective traceability is a complex issue with regards to fresh fruits and vegetables. But until that is accomplished, the industry will be forced to deal with food safety outbreaks in a very broad way.

Bruce Peterson is a former produce executive with Walmart and president of Arkansas-based Peterson Insights Inc.