“In the produce industry, we’re constantly one headline away from a big problem.”

Or so said one produce director many years ago in the wake of a produce scare in the late 1980s.

Since then, produce operations have never been quite the same. It’s been a revolving door of recalled products from all corners of the food business. No commodity is safe. Authorities scramble to narrow their search to avoid big losses to grower-shippers, and to a lesser extent, wholesalers and retailers. Too often a recall translates into not only supply losses but serious consumer health issues, too.

The central issue, of course, is that most produce items are eaten fresh, without the benefit of cooking — heat that would otherwise kill harmful pathogens. Fresh produce is overwhelmingly safe to eat, but what happens when there’s a concern, a reported string of illnesses, worrisome headlines?

In the produce aisle department managers are at the forefront of this “fire drill,” as another produce director called it. Here are what most store and produce managers can expect when they get the recall call.

The announcement seems to arrive from the CDC or other federal health authorities, channeling the message through the media. The news travels swiftly, and supermarket chains usually have designated point people and spokespeople ready to respond.

Communication from corporate typically includes a relay-network system, set up to spread the word throughout the chain. Oftentimes it’s a safety and produce director issuing direction for stores to take action to pull a produce item. The network of communication most likely goes from here to district managers, who notify store managers, and finally the word reaches the produce manager.

No hesitation is the first course of action. No time to analyze or question once the recall is affirmed from a reliable and authoritative source. The produce item is pulled from the shelves, including any packaged or blended products that may include the recalled product.

Protect and segregate is the next course of action. Produce managers are usually asked to palletize all recalled product, shrink-wrap or otherwise assemble it all, and put it away (dry or refrigerated as needed) to protect the product, and sign it as ‘recalled’ to stop anyone who may try to stock it.

This is done for two reasons. One, if the recall is a mistake or short-lived and cleared, the store can avoid the loss. Two, the supplier may be required to pick up the recalled product from the store.

Communication to customers is the next vital stage. Many chains will issue appropriate signing that explains why the recalled produce item they are shopping for is not in stock. Most chains are rightfully careful with the pre-made signs, stating only the known facts and when customers may expect the item to return.

Merchandise alternatives is a good next step. It’s awkward to leave a gaping hole where the recalled item was. So fill in the gap with a similar type of product that a customer could possibly use as a substitute. Even in the midst of discouraging news stories, try to accentuate the positive.

Coach employees so that everyone on your crew knows what is happening with a recall. Explain to each member of your team what the facts are, and stress to each one to not speculate or exaggerate what may or may not be happening with the produce item recall. Explaining to customers in specific, short talking points is best – something like, “The item is under recall as a precautionary measure, one we take very seriously for everyone’s safety. We hope to have it back in stock as soon as possible.”

No one likes to see a produce item recall. The very word casts a shadow over the industry and is often subject to numerous uncertainties. Not to mention it costs millions to growers and takes considerable time to regain consumer confidence. Sadly, even in a country with the safest food supply, it is the world we live in.

The best approach is to follow your corporate direction and be open and honest with the facts.


Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at lobatoarmand@gmail.com.

 

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