A Product Recall Crisis Management Forum highlighted the Food Safety track at the 2010 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference this year.  The conference, held at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, was well attended by fruit and vegetable growers from across the Southeast, many of them filling the auditorium for the Recall Crisis Management Forum on Friday.

cantaloupe3.jpgThe forum was co-presented by Dr. David Gombas, Senior VP of Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, DC, and Adam Lytch of L & M Companies of Raleigh, NC.  Gombas began the event with some hard truths: that a produce recall can happen to anyone at any time, and that some businesses–especially smaller companies–that are involved in recalls don’t survive the process.   He quickly listed important steps that growers should take to protect themselves in case of a product recall:

Be prepared: Make sure you have accurate records for every lot you sell.  Have a plan in place, and a recall team trained and ready to go.  Make sure that one of those people is a communications person–either in-house or hired as needed–who can craft messages and communicate them swiftly and consistently to the FDA, media, customers, and consumers.

Get training: Make sure management and your recall team is trained in how to respond to a product recall.

Practice: Training isn’t enough – you have to actually go through the process when not under the pressure of an actual recall.

Resources: Know whom to turn to for what you need.  You can get help with communications, interpreting the testing data, and negotiating a stressful and complex process.

Insurance:  Investigate recall insurance.  It isn’t cheap, but it can save your company.  Recalls are not covered by basic liability insurance.

He then turned the microphone over to Adam Lytch of L & M Companies to share first-hand experience with having to recall a product.  In May 2009 the FDA sampled cantaloupe from the field of an outside grower used by L & M.  The samples were taken from a field bin, and had not yet been put thorough L & M’s chlorine wash process.  From the 20 melons sampled, one came back positive for Salmonella, initiating a Class I recall of product from three states.  There were never any illnesses associated with the product.

Lytch shared his experience with the group, including communicating with the FDA, the preparations and training they had in place, proactive steps they took, and how they responded to wholesale customers, retailers, and consumers.  He described how they set up a hotline and issued a press release, while simultaneously having additional testing done at the field and on product.  No additional Salmonella was detected on the farm, in the water, or on other product, but L & M decided to destroy the entire lot, just to be sure.

Although it was an extremely difficult time for the company, Lytch said that they wanted to share their experience to inform and help educate other growers.

In the Q & A section that followed, growers in the audience expressed surprise that the FDA could initiate a recall based on produce that had yet not gone through washing or disinfecting steps it would pass through before sale to the public, but both Lytch and Gombas assured them that it could.  

“Chlorine baths are not required, and are not considered a ‘kill step’,” said Gombas.  “Produce is considered ready to eat as soon as it is harvested.”

Beth Bland, Food Safety Coordinator for the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, said that the food safety education track was an annual part of the conference.  She added that the organization holds food safety education workshops throughout the year.