How to Keep the Lid on your Finances when a Food Recall Strikes

By Clark Schweers & Rick Schreiber

Some of the biggest names in the grocery aisle have made headlines this year with high-profile recalls, including General Mills and Kellogg, among numerous other household staples. Major food manufacturers, including ConAgra, have also pulled their products from market with nationwide recalls. In fact, this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recorded 51 food safety and inspection recalls and alerts through Aug. 30, up a whopping 121.7 percent from the same period in 2015, when it recorded just 23. In 2014, the USDA recorded 39 recalls and alerts over the same time period, a figure approximately 30 percent lower than this year.

Manufacturers have noticed. According to the 2016 BDO Manufacturing RiskFactor Report, 100 percent of the largest publicly traded U.S. food manufacturers cite product quality, contamination issues or recalls as a significant business risk in their regulatory filings, up from 90 percent in 2015.

And it’s clear the stakes are high not just for manufacturers, but for suppliers, retailers and grocers up and down the entire supply chain. It’s important to understand why recalls are growing more common and to implement protective measures to mitigate risk before your supply chain sours.

What’s turning up the heat?

Often, upticks in regulatory action can simply be due to a more watchful eye from regulatory bodies. In 2015, President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), arguably the most sweeping reform of food safety in more than 70 years. The FSMA provides the FDA with new legislative authority to establish preventive control standards and enforce compliance, as well as tools to better respond to problems when they do occur.

But while increased regulatory scrutiny is likely a contributor to the increase in product recalls and contamination issues, it’s not entirely to blame. Shifting consumer preferences are prompting dramatic changes in the industry as some food manufacturers remove pesticides, preservatives and other additives from their products to take advantage of the organic craze. While the popularity of organic food is driven by a trend toward greater consciousness of health and wellness, synthetic substances serve an important role in safeguarding against spoilage and foodborne illness. More recently, food manufacturers have also begun removing preservatives and artificial ingredients from non-organic food, in response to demand for “natural” foods. The long-term health benefits of organic or natural foods remain unclear, but there’s no question that the preservatives they exclude prevent bacterial growth during transport and distribution.

Technology has also changed the way we detect and report on foodborne illness. Individual incidents that historically would have been dismissed as one-off episodes and gone unreported can now be tracked and connected by Genome and DNA testing. This allows regulators to better pinpoint the source of foodborne illness outbreaks, which could be contributing to the number of product recalls. Social media and consumer-run websites have also become popular forums for bringing an outbreak to attention.

Gloves on: What protective measures can help?

Food processed at a single plant can be routed far and wide through the market — for example, a large processor’s fruit may be sold in frozen bulk, smoothie mixes and other products under various manufacturers’ brand names nationwide. This makes the process of a product recall potentially extensive and costly. And the consequences can persist long after the financial bleeding stops — reputation can also take a serious bruising.

To shield themselves from the consequences of a contamination incident or recall, food manufacturers should consider these protective measures:

  1. Implement strong supply chain management procedures.
    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Thoroughly understanding where risk lies along the supply chain and implementing strong quality controls can help to mitigate and detect food contamination before an outbreak occurs. To proactively manage the risk of a food recall incident, food manufacturers should implement policies and procedures to ensure their suppliers’
    and their own compliance with Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations and the latest food safety standards, including food allergen controls and routine food safety audits by third-party certification bodies.
  2. Review contracts.
    Heavyweights in the retail industry are increasingly including indemnifications against damages in the event of a product recall or critical incident in their contracts with suppliers and manufacturers. Food manufacturers should thoroughly evaluate their agreements with distributors and retailers to identify where responsibility lies in the event of a recall, and avoid risky business where possible.
  3. Expect the worst.
    Every food facility should have an up-to-date crisis management plan that establishes roles and responsibilities and outlines a strategy for every possible scenario.
  4. Invest in insurance protection.
    Product contamination policies have gained popularity in recent years — not only because of the increased spotlight on food safety, but because investors expect it. Fortunately, as more companies incorporate liability, property and product recall policies within their coverage, more carriers have entered the market and the growing demand has pushed premiums down.

Boiling over: How to limit the damage?

No manufacturer is entirely safe from the risk of a recall or contamination incident. It’s important to have a contingency plan in place to help identify the source of the contamination and isolate the problem to prevent further spread in plants and factories. Manufacturers should also have a response plan prepared to curb potential financial and reputational fallout. Consumers and investors alike are much more forgiving when companies react and respond quickly.

In the event of a contamination incident, it’s also important to factor in potential losses to financial forecasts to staunch the bleeding and avoid future surprises. With recalls on the rise, companies should take a close eye to their insurance policies and contracts with supply chain partners to pinpoint risk, and ensure the right protective measures are in place to keep the supply chain in check and limit damage in the event of a recall.

This article originally appeared in BDO USA, LLP’s “Manufacturing Output” newsletter (Fall 2016). Copyright © 2016 BDO USA, LLP. All rights reserved. www.bdo.com