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Beach Beat: It’s not rocket science, it’s computer science

FDA investigates why Amazon took 6 months to stop selling recalled soy butter linked to outbreak

Opinion

If Jeff Bezos and the little online book-selling company he founded in a Seattle garage in 1994 can employ more than 314,000 people and buy Whole Foods Markets for $13.7 billion;

If he and the company known simply as Amazon can post a 25 percent revenue increase, quarter-to-quarter, taking in $38 billion from April through June this year;

If the man with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton can go toe-to-toe with Apple and Microsoft;

Why did it take six months for him and the world’s largest online retailer to stop offering and selling recalled soy butter that was — and probably still is — poisoning people across the country with E. coli bacteria?

Good question, right?

Here’s the answer from Cecilia Fan, who’s been “PR Manager” at Amazon.com since March:

“We won’t be commenting on this but appreciate your reaching out.”

I had submitted a query to Amazon.com seeking comment on the fact that it was continuing to sell I.M. Healthy brand “SoyNut Butter” as of Tuesday morning. The time stamp shows I hit send at 10:40 a.m. Fan’s above answer hit my inbox at 4:57 p.m.

During the ensuing hours a few things happened. Sales of the recalled peanut butter substitute, made by Dixie Dew Products Inc., on Amazon.com were quietly suspended. The Food and Drug Administration started investigating the situation. And, within minutes of each other around 3 p.m., Food Safety News broke the story and the Amazon PR manager sent an initial response to my morning query.

For my morning message I had used the subject line “recalled soy nut butter traced to E. coli outbreak still being sold to consumers on Amazon.com” and I asked what recall procedures and verifications Amazon uses to ensure recalled foods are not shipped to consumers.

Amazon’s response:

“Hi Coral – thanks for reaching out. Can you tell me more about your piece? Is this a product you purchased?”

If you’re not outraged,
you haven’t been reading this column
Not that I hold Fan responsible for the responses from the corporate behemoth. She’s no doubt not too near the top of the Amazon food chain, but Bezos is, and he’s apparently been asleep at the wheel.

With an intricate system of distribution routes, warehouses, suppliers and consumers connected via the massive network that is Amazon, how could there be any other answer other than the people at the very top did not pay attention to detail when they should have.

From the very first moment Bezos and the others in control at Amazon considered selling food, they should have considered how to handle recalls. They certainly represent themselves and their enterprise as being the very definition of cutting-edge of technology.

A bespectacled Sam Drucker at the General Store at Petticoat Junction could have done a better job of inventory control and customer service with his notepad, pencil and crank telephone.

Reality as of this moment
The folks at the FDA are on the case. I don’t care what people say about government workers. Civil servants may not make the world go round, but they certainly keep it from tipping too far off plumb.

“The FDA has verified that this listing has been removed from Amazon’s website. It is the responsibility of a recalling firm to ensure that the recall is effective. We are investigating further to determine how the products were still available for sale,” an FDA spokeswoman told me Tuesday evening.

The production facility of the soy nut butter producer, Kentucky-based Dixie Dew Products Inc., is still the most likely root source of the E. coli contamination, which sickened at least 32 people across the country earlier this year. The FDA inspected Dixie Dew’s soy flour supplier’s operation as part of its initial investigation into the outbreak.

“In addition to inspecting and collecting records at the manufacturing facilities, FDA inspected and sampled Dixie Dew’s soy flour manufacturer to determine if product entering the Dixie Dew facility could have been the source of the contamination,” according to the FDA spokeswoman.

“There were no objectionable conditions noted during this inspection. The supplier conducted all processing for the flour sent to Dixie Dew and did not ship out unprocessed soybeans.”

And finally, Amazon — and Bezos as founder, president and CEO — are ducking and covering and throwing a public relations staffer under the bus.

The I.M. Healthy “SoyNut Butter” should have been identified and pulled from availability as soon as the FDA sent out the initial recall notification in early March. If no one on the Amazon staff has signed up for the FDA’s recall alerts yet, the entire PR and quality assurance departments should do so immediately.

At the point a member of the press sends a query about continued sales of a recalled food product implicated in an illness outbreak, get a clue and put together a statement.

Finally, if you are selling food online — this goes for you, Walmart, and every other retailer out there in cyberspace — post all recalls on your website. Amazon and others offer consumers a list of links to the FDA and other government agencies that are involved in food recalls.

That’s passing the buck to your customers. Shame on you. Have your college interns copy and paste the recall notices into your content management system. It’s really the least you can do to protect your customers.

Oh yeah — It’s not just Amazon
A quick check of online retailers Tuesday showed some websites still appearing to offer the recalled I.M. Healthy “SoyNut Butter” for sale. Among them were Shop.com, Yumza.com and BestDeals.today.

There was also an ad for the recalled soy butter still rotating through a spot on eBay.com, but neither it nor the other sites we checked allowed transactions to go through on the product.

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