Product recalls, the management practice of last resort, fluctuate from year to year. Related notifications increased again in 2013 in the US, but bucking the recent global trend, notifications in the EU fell by 8.8%.
High profile food scares have no doubt contributed to caution across the food supply chain, but the impact of recalls on business performance can be very detrimental. Food safety notifications in the US are supposed to be logged in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Reportable Food Registry (RFR), United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service and FDA are found at foodsafety.gov, and in the EU via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) giving visibility to individual issues, improving traceability and identification of wider issues/trends. 

Based on analysis of USA, UK and Republic of Ireland notifications1 from 2004 to 2010, based on the RASFF hazard categories, it is apparent that operational product recalls are the biggest category, by some distance. 55% of total recalls result from issues including incorrect labelling, packaging defects, production contamination (metal, glass, plastic, pests), production defects, unauthorised ingredients, incorrect ingredient levels and food fraud. Biological hazard based product recalls, relating to pathogens, biotoxins, viruses and hygiene indicators, are the second most frequent type of food hazard (36%), and chemical hazard based product recalls representing the smallest proportion of total recalls (9%).

Notifications in the US

The US FDA’s fourth Annual RFR Report summarises the Registry’s fourth year of operation (8 September, 2012 – 7 September, 2013) and finds that it logged 1,269 reports, including 202 primary reports – initial reports about a safety concern with a food or animal feed (including food ingredients); 849 subsequent reports from suppliers or recipients of a food or feed for which a primary report had been submitted; and 218 amended reports to correct or add information to previously submitted reports.
In the qualifying period 48% of recalls were a result of operational product recalls, 48% for biological hazards.  Of the 1,269 reports three generated substantial subsequent entries, the presence of Salmonella Bredeney (Salmonella enterica serotype Bredeney) in a widely distributed peanut butter, Listeria monocytogenes in imported smoked salmon and Escherichia coli O121 in various frozen foods resulted in 207, 80 and 69 entries respectively.

Notifications in the EU

RASFF notifications dropped by 8.8% in 2013, to 3,205 original notifications, of which 596 were classified as alerts, 442 as information for follow up, 705 as information for attention and 1,462 as border rejection notifications.  Notifications for biological hazards (pathogenic microorganisms) in food reached an all-time high in 2013, 642 represents an increase of 40% compared to 2012. In this category, notifications for Salmonella spp on chicken tripled, while reports on bivalve molluscs increased due to marine biotoxins, Norovirus, Salmonella spp and E.coli.

Detrimental Effect

Brand reputation takes years to build, but as little as one product recall to destroy. Customer and consumer trust plays a vital role in the food industry, once broken its impacts can be felt in many ways. Research has found that product recalls impact not only customer sales and consumer demand but also, operational performance, share price, food prices and market movements.  From the customer and consumer perspective, increased food product recalls beg the question – is food quality, safety and integrity getting worse? Or is the food industry getting better at regulating itself?
Established markets are becoming more accountable and transparent. RFR in the US and RASFF in the EU, both enable indeed, compel the industry to report incidents, thereby giving transparency and an efficient method for highlighting and reviewing issues, individually or in a wider context. For example, the horse meat substitution scandal at first appeared to be a UK-specific issue, but through recalls and investigations it soon spread across Europe. Not long after the horse meat fraud issue broke out, RASFF was chosen as a crucial tool to trace back and withdraw products in which horse meat was discovered.

Safety First

Food safety management systems, testing and traceability all facilitate prompt action when problems arise in the food supply chain. Product recalls are generally a management practice of last resort, taken only when a firm needs to prevent sub-standard products reaching consumers, usually to prevent the risk of adverse impact on consumer health.  Across the industry, process, policies and system fail-safes are put in place to try to ensure a recall is not required.  Market withdrawal notifications are issued before a product reaches the end consumer, and are voluntary. They focus on the recall of products from the supply chain that do not contravene regulations and have yet to be distributed / sold to end-consumers.

Assess, Mitigate and Reduce Risk

Operational, biological and chemical hazards can all be addressed, and the risks to the food supply chain and its end-consumers can be assessed, mitigated and reduced through implementation of effective food safety management systems, including strict implementation and ongoing training for staff at all levels. With SQF, BRC, IFS, FSSC 22000 and HACCP, there are plenty of industry specific schemes to help drive continuous improvement and aid the identification of issues and substandard products before they reach the distribution network.
For further information on SGS Food Services please visit our SGS Food website.

Ron Wacker, PhD
Global Food Testing Business
Development Manager
SGS Germany
t: +49 40 301 012 65


1 Potter, A., et al., Trends in Product recalls within the agri-food industry: Empirical evidence form the USA, UK and the Republic of Ireland, Trends in Food Science and Technology (2012)