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Sholto Hesketh examines how food businesses can use technology to help avoid costly product recalls

In this day and age, food and beverage manufacturers and distributors need to optimise traceability processes right across the supply chain to mitigate against costly financial and brand damage. For businesses such as major supermarket supplier, Greenyard Frozen UK, who had to recall 43 sweetcorn-based products last year, the long-term effects of such a major recall can be catastrophic, with many customers taking the opportunity to review their suppliers to prevent similar issues in the future. 

Major manufacturers and suppliers can often weather such storms and salvage retailer relationships, but smaller suppliers don’t tend to fare so well. So how can you avoid recalls in the first instance? This blog closely examines two significant factors in recalls: recall types and product traceability information management.

What happened?

With regards to the sweetcorn-based recall in the UK, the situation is more complex than just one supplier selling a bad product. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said listeria (which can cause a rare and deadly illness) has been affecting Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the UK since 2015, with the same strain of listeria detected in frozen vegetables produced by a Hungarian company in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The same could be said for 2017’s Fipronil-contaminated egg scandal, where approximately 700,000 contaminated eggs landed on UK shores, with millions more reaching 15 other EU countries, as well as Hong Kong and Switzerland.  In both of these cases, any number of suppliers with robust traceability programs in place should have been able to identify the risky source of the problem and avoid purchasing from that source. Clearly, something isn’t working as it should.

Multiple recall flavours

Many food suppliers believe they either don’t handle high-risk products or play no role in the factors causing recalls, believing that product recalls involve deadly bacteria and other pathogens that put consumers’ health at risk. However, more and more often, the cause of recalls is undeclared allergens and products being mislabelled.

All food suppliers, whether they manufacture or handle high-risk products or not, can be the cause of a recall. What this means for the industry is that the ability for food suppliers to demonstrate full, effective traceability procedures across the supply chain is now a prerequisite for doing business with many major retailers, with such retail businesses demanding that their suppliers share the financial burden of the loss of profits and associated costs that product recalls entail. Therefore, food suppliers need robust traceability capabilities in place to not only avoid recalls but to have the ability to react swiftly if one occurs.

What Does Traceability Look Like?

EU regulation 178/2002 might require every food and beverage business in the EU and those bringing products into the Europe to have a traceability and recall system in place, but it doesn’t specify how effective this system needs to be. What were robust end-to-end traceability and product recall capabilities a few years ago, might not be enough today, with technological advances often outpacing the rate at which food and beverage business systems evolve. With this in mind, food suppliers need to continuously evaluate their recall strategies and traceability procedures with a view to achieving that all-important BRC grade-A accreditation for traceability as soon as the need arises.

Traceability information for every food product you sell associates a broad range of data with each product batch or lot you ship, including:
•    Manufacturer identity
•    Manufacturer address
•    Ingredient names
•    Ingredient nutritional values
•    Manufacturer’s batch/lot number
•    Customers’ receiving data
•    Transportation and distribution records
•    Expiration dates

Traceability data should be automatically associated with production data, and your information system should automatically trace ingredients at each production stage, maintaining lot- or batch-specific data. This makes tracing products more meaningful, as each traced batch yields quality control data and raw material supply data, making it easier to isolate problems and find resolutions if a product recall does occur.

Easier Traceability Management

With all this in mind, more and more suppliers are managing product traceability with a software-based system. Tracking multiple products using the aforementioned data points without a software-based system is overwhelmingly difficult and would likely break down, eliminating supply chain visibility. Also, many customers have already started to demand integrated information to keep their own traceability operations in order, with many retailers themselves adopting backward traceability with a view to protecting their own brand should a recall be necessary. 
The third reason for software-based system traceability is to streamline operations and gain efficiency. Consider your modern ERP system - combined with its flexible information management capabilities, you have a central source for staying up-to-date on the increasingly complex sets of rules governing food safety and quality checks.

ERP systems can incorporate workflows that produce product labels and prohibit products from passing to specific stages in the fulfilment cycle before traceability and ‘label checks’ occur. A typical food supplier can easily model such checks into their ERP-driven workflows and adjust them to satisfy any new requirements that retailers and regulators may impose.

Today’s ERP systems are the most logical and efficient vehicle for collaborative working and communication right across the entire supply chain, forwards and backwards, ensuring all parties have the insight required to prevent product recalls, saving valuable money and reputations in the process.

View our Food Traceability: From Farm to Fork Infographic if you’d like more information about using your ERP to manage traceability and avoid recalls, or contact us today.

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