Tag Archives: food manufacturers

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Blue Bell Hit with Record $17.25 Million in Criminal Penalties for 2015 Listeria Outbreak

By Maria Fontanazza
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Department of Justice seal

Remember the 2015 Listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell Creameries? The outbreak led to three deaths and 10 illnesses between January 2010 and January 2015. On Thursday the Department of Justice ordered the company to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for shipping contaminated products linked to that outbreak. The sentence, enforced by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman (Austin, Texas), is the largest fine and forfeiture ever imposed in a conviction involving a food safety case.

“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat,” stated – Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Justice Department’s Civil Division in an agency news release. “The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers.”

In May 2020 Blue Bell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream. The following is an excerpt from the Department of Justice news release:

“The plea agreement and criminal information filed against Blue Bell allege that the company distributed ice cream products that were manufactured under insanitary conditions and contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. According to the plea agreement, Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that samples of two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential Listeria contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive Listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional state-led testing confirmed Listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests. Blue Bell’s customers included military installations.”

Chris Keith, FlexXray
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COVID-19: We’re In This Together

By Chris Keith
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Chris Keith, FlexXray

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on industries and individuals around the world. According to the World Health Organization, as of June 21, 2020, there have been 8,708,008 reported cases of COVID-19 globally, including 461,715 deaths. In a recent article by Forbes, healthcare contributor William Haseltine stated that we are gathering personal stories and statistics right now around COVID-19 survivors who have suffered permanent injuries from the virus. Many experts believe that COVID-19 is also an economic downturn trigger. Author and financial planner Liz Frazier says that even as recessions are a normal part of the U.S. economic cycle, lasting about five and a half years on average, the possibility of a recession starting due to the outbreak would be unprecedented.1 The COVID-19 pandemic is a natural disaster that rocked the world and is a reminder of how connected people are in a global economy.

As quarantine regulations and temporary closures happened across the United States, businesses had to mobilize quickly, pivoting their strategies, distribution efforts, products and beyond to accommodate the new safety measures and external pressures. The food and beverage industry was no different. Although food manufacturers were deemed essential in the United States by Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), manufacturers had to adapt to a new normal during the shutdown.2 Some of the biggest changes that occurred in the food manufacturing industry include fluctuating customers, prices, product and ingredient availability, packaging, distribution, and food quality and safety.

Shifting Demand, Customers and Food Pricing

Sharp changes in food prices and product availability shocked supply and demand and impacted the entire food supply chain across the United States. According to the USDA, there were record levels of demand for food at grocery stores, and, on the supply side, there has been a reduced supply of meat products over the period of quarantine as meatpacking plants faced temporary closures, decreased slaughter pace, and slower production due to COVID-19 regulations.3 Poultry prices took a sharp dip and have been rebounding, hot dog prices are at an all-time high due to increased demand, and beef prices have been climbing due to scarce supply and limited fresh production. Food pricing fluctuation is one of the largest food industry impacts felt directly by the general public and the on-premise sector. Restaurants and bars were crushed by the skyrocketing ingredient prices and mandatory temporary closures due to COVID-19.

As restaurants, school cafeterias and hotels were temporarily shut down due to quarantine restrictions, the food manufacturing industry’s most prominent customers practically disappeared. Before COVID-19, the USDA reported that in 2018, restaurants provided approximately 50% of meals consumed on a daily basis, up from 41% in 1984.4 When COVID-19 hit, consumer trends showed a monumental shift to eating at home. During the height of the pandemic, more people ordered take out from fast-casual dining places and ate from home. A recently published study reveals survey findings that suggest American’s food habits are shifting, as 54% of respondents confirmed they are cooking more, and 46% of respondents, baking more.5 As customers and demand changed, products and packaging had to follow suit.

Scores of manufacturing facilities had to rapidly respond with different products to meet changing consumer demand, despite already being in mid-production for products for restaurant kitchens, cafeterias, and the like. Most of these large-scale and wholesale products would never make it to their original, intended destinations. Manufacturers swiftly adapted their production, creating retail-ready goods from product made or intended for restaurant or fast food supply. These food production facilities had to creatively find ways to change product packaging sizes, salvaging good product with take-home cartons and containers. Some processors pre-sliced deli meat for grocery stores around the country, as markets were unable to slice the meat in-store, dealing with restrictions on the number of people who could work at any given time. The food manufacturing industry showed great ingenuity, repurposing food and getting creative in order to keep the country fed and bridge the gap in convenience shopping that consumers have grown used to.

New Distribution Pressures

There were also disruptions in the food industry’s distribution channel, and the logistics of distribution were adversely affected. Facilities faced increased pressure to have tighter production turnarounds from new consumer behavior and out-of-stock situations as many markets dealt with temporary panic shopping at the beginning of the crisis. Food manufacturing facilities have always faced tight deadlines when dealing with fresh and refrigerated product. However, COVID-19 introduced new critical, immediate needs to the food supply, and, more than ever before, facilities were pressed for time to deliver. Some facilities didn’t have enough dock loading time, and certain cold storage facilities could not meet the raised demands for dock times, making it harder to get product through the distribution channel to consumers. Shipping and logistics came at a premium. Drivers and logistics companies were at capacity with their service offerings, and unable to mobilize to meet the needs of every manufacturing company.

On top of the pressures from consumer demand, manufacturing facilities had to procure PPE (personal protective equipment) in mass for all employees and adjust employee schedules to meet new national and state-wide quarantine restrictions that strained the system. The PPE requirements are part of the distribution logistics, as plants are unable to distribute safe product without adhering to the system’s regulations. Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, Clay Detlefsen, said in an article for Food Shot Global that the whole food industry’s system has been turned on its head, as manufacturers are concerned that if they start running out of PPE and sanitation supplies, they would ultimately be forced into shutting down their food processing plants.6

Regulating Food Quality and Safety

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns surrounding the food supply chain during the height of COVID-19 for both producers and consumers was food safety. While safety and quality are always a high priority in the food industry, rising concern around the transmission of COVID-19 became a new and unprecedented challenge for food quality experts. In February the FDA declared that COVID-19 is unlikely to pass through food or food packaging, but that didn’t stop public concern.7 It was critical for food manufacturers and producers to ease public fear, keep the food supply stable and eliminate foreign material contamination that would adversely affect consumers and brand reputation. A mass recall due to foreign material contamination would have dire consequences for the strained food supply chain during this historic crisis. At the same time, the pandemic limited quality and food safety teams, as key teams had to work remotely, shift schedules had to drastically change to meet new safety regulations, production lines cut in half, and quality and safety teams had to make rushed decisions when it came to reworking product.

Some plants that faced potential foreign material contamination risked sending their product into distribution without a thorough rework, up against tight deadlines. And some plants adopted a multifaceted strategy and did something they’ve never done before: Reworked product on hold for potential foreign material contamination themselves. Many of these companies reworked product with their extra available lines, to keep as many of their workers as possible, despite the fact that food production employees are untrained in finding and extracting foreign contaminants. Inline detection machines are also typically limited to metal detection, often incapable of consistently catching many other types of contaminants such as glass, stones, plastic, bone, rubber, gasket material, container defects, product clumps, wood and other possible missing components. Food safety is of the utmost importance when a crisis hits as the food supply chain is crucial to our success as a nation and as an interconnected world. Facing new pressures on all sides, the food industry did not neglect food safety and quality, even while adopting new strategies. There was never a doubt that the industry would overcome the new challenges.

Looking Forward

The food industry has rapidly switched business strategies, swiftly turned around new products, found new ways to align product traceability and work remotely while still meeting industry standards and production expectations. Manufacturing facilities repackaged and repurposed food to keep the country fed, maintained job security for many employees and procured PPE in mass. The food industry is also full of manufacturers and plants that accomplished things they’ve never done before. There are shining examples of heroism in the food and beverage space as a growing list of food businesses, restaurants and delivery services have donated to healthcare workers on the front lines. Many large companies donated millions of dollars and pounds of food to feed their teams, their communities and the less fortunate.8 In the midst of a large obstacle, we have reached new heights and discovered new capabilities.

The challenges aren’t over. The food industry is still facing the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns on businesses even during this period of re-opening in different parts of the country. A lot of places and companies have been hit hard, some even closing their doors for good. Forbes reported at the onset of the pandemic that Smithfield Foods shut down one of its pork processing plants after hundreds of the plant’s 3,700 employees tested positive for coronavirus.8 Tyson Foods also shut down several meat processing plants under threat of the virus.8 Smithfield and Tyson were not the only ones. Food Dive has a compiled tracking system for coronavirus closures in food and beverage manufacturing facilities, recording reduced production, temporary closures, and permanent shutdowns across the industry. We expect some of the COVID-19 challenges to alleviate over time and hope that business will slowly return to normal and previously closed facilities will be able to re-open. However, we strongly hope some changes to the industry will remain: Creativity, ingenuity, resilience, adaptability, and a strong commitment to customers and partners. The bottom line is we’re in this together––together, we’re resilient.

References

  1. Frazier, L. (April 21, 2020). “How COVID-19 Is Leading The US Into A New Type Of Recession, And What It Means For Our Future.” Forbes.
  2. Krebs, C. (May 19, 2020). “Advisory Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response.” Homeland Security Digital Library.
  3.  Johansson, R. (May 28, 2020) “Another Look at Availability and Prices of Food Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.” USDA.
  4. Stewart, H. (September 2011). “Food Away From Home.” The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Food Consumption and Policy. 646–666. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569441.013.0027
  5. The Shelby Report. (April 17, 2020). “New Study Reveals Covid-19 Impact On Americans’ Food Habits.”
  6. Caldwell, J. (April 16, 2020). “How Covid-19 is impacting various points in the US food & ag supply chain”. AgFunderNews.
  7. Hahn, M.D., S. (March 27, 2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supply Chain Update. FDA.
  8. Biscotti, L. (April 17, 2020). “Food And Beverage Companies Evolve, Innovate And Contribute Amid COVID-19 Crisis.” Forbes.

Food Transparency No Longer an Option

By Maria Fontanazza
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As consumers demand to know the “who, what, when, where and how” of products they purchase, companies must focus on bringing honesty to the table to build trust.

Consumers are becoming more informed about the dangers of certain ingredients and the presence of allergens and pesticides in food. In the future, virtually the only way companies can build and retain consumer trust is through providing transparency in the food chain.

“Transparency will no longer be an option,” says John Keogh, president and principal advisor at Shantalla Inc. “Food businesses have to commit themselves to transparency as the only way to demonstrate to the market how customer-oriented they are.” Keogh discussed the need for companies to be forthright not just about what is in food, but also the entire product journey—the who, what, when, where and how—during a recent webinar by the GMA Science and Education Foundation, “Transparency in the Food Value Chain”.

Drawing on examples such as the horsemeat scandal in Europe, trust is quickly lost when dishonesty rears its head. “We need to bring a level of honesty and ethics into supply chain transparency,” says Keogh. This includes disclosing where the product is made or grown, including the state, in the case of the United States; the province, in the case of Canada; and where Japan is concerned, the prefecture. A recent example is Taiwan’s plans to require prefecture labels of Japanese food imports following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, which has raised significant concerns over radioactive contamination in food.

As the supply chain becomes increasingly global and more complex, several factors are compelling transparency. Regulations that address food safety, security, defense, and fraud will all have an impact. The Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) under FSMA will put pressure on the nearly 200 countries that import products into the United States. According to Keogh, there are 220,000 importers on record, and they have about 300,000 facilities, all of which must be inspected under the FSVP mandate. In Europe, the EU regulation 1169/2011 requires the disclosure of more information to consumers, including mandatory origin labeling of unprocessed meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry, mandatory nutrition labels on process foods, and disclosure of allergens in the ingredient list. Companies will also need to consider requirements for Halal and Kosher foods.

Technology plays the key role in driving consumer awareness and demand for more information, but Keogh notes there is a gap between consumer expectations from a data perspective and the ability of companies to actually deliver this data. He offers some examples of emerging technologies that companies can use to facilitate supply chain transparency. Sourcemap is a supply chain mapping solution that allows companies to link from their raw materials sites to the end customers. Companies can generate reports from various metrics and identify the weak links in their supply chain. Trace One is a product lifecycle management solution that has a focused module for transparency. The company also recently announced the first B2B social network for supply chain transparency as well as the full alignment with GS1 standards and embedding fTrace into its platform. Manufacturers using Trace One have visibility on all of their ingredients, suppliers and facilities, and can search for products that may be affected by an ingredient or facility problems related to a recall, for example.

“Food chain transparency has the potential to create new business opportunities for retailers and manufacturers,” says Keogh. Moving forward, companies will need to have a foundation of standards, specifically GS1 Standards, and use them at a deeper level to enable interoperability between the technologies that supply chain partners use. Keogh urges companies to think beyond food safety and food quality to value-based transparency to increase value not just for the end consumer but also for supply chain partners. This will also involve ensuring privacy of data surrounding pricing and proprietary information.

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The Fiscal Cliff’s Impact on Food Safety Management and FSMA

By Timothy Lozier
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One of the key areas that stands to lose in the fiscal cliff lies in food safety. We may be looking at a food chain that is less safe in 2013 that it is now.

The fiscal cliff is a series of tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year. It also would mean that spending cuts would take effect, which would have an impact specifically on Food Safety in the United States.

One of the key areas that stands to lose in the fiscal cliff lies in food safety. If we indeed fall off this fiscal cliff, there will be an 8 percent cut in spending for plant and animal health inspections, equaling about $70 million in cut funding. The Food Safety and Inspection Service agency could stand to lose about a billion dollars from their budget. We are also looking at about $3 million in spending cuts on inspectors. This means less food inspectors in the field, and as a result, less inspections. We are looking at a food chain that is less safe in 2013 that it is now.

FSMA: Still alive?

The other question that comes into play is whether the ever-delayed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is going to continue its path to law. We all know the delays that the FSMA has encountered since its introduction and passing in 2010. Now that the election is over, the administration seems more committed to the law than ever before.

However, this does not mean that we will see much movement in the coming year. The Office of Management and Budget has stated they plan to release the rules of the FSMA in early 2013, with a 60 day period of public comment. Once that is completed, FDA will take about a year or so to incorporate any public’s comment into the final rule. After that, other agencies will need to review these rules and approve them to actually make it into law.

So, it’s a year for FDA, and a year for other agencies – provided we don’t have any issues (which we will), we’re looking at 2015. More realistically, we’re looking for 2016-2017 timeframe for the FSMA to become a law.

That’s if we don’t see cuts stemming from a fiscal cliff disaster. The Obama Administration seems committed, stating “…We are working as expeditiously as possible to implement the food safety legislation we fought so hard for. When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right.”

Law or not, food manufacturers are acting now

But whatever the result of government legislation and laws to be enacted for Food Safety Management, organizations are taking the necessary steps today to build processes that foster safer and higher quality food management. The Global Food Safety Initiative’s various schemes (BRC, SQF, IFS, etc.) are currently the gold standard for food safety in the industry today. Companies that are implementing these schemes are taking a proactive stance on food safety, and demonstrating a commitment to promoting safe quality foods in their operations.

Look at Canada

Canada seems to be on the right track these days. Just last month the Canadian government passed their food safety bill into law, which is a sister bill to the FSMA. The new law, which comes in the aftermath of a massive E. coli outbreak at a local farm, has many similar elements to what the U.S. is trying to do with the FSMA. The “Safe Food for Canadians” Act entails:

  • Better traceability in the food system, making it easier to recall products if safety issues arise somewhere in the food chain.
  • New record-keeping requirements for regulated facilities and more powers for inspectors to compel the production of documents in usable formats.
  • Tougher penalties for those who violate established safety standards, increasing maximum fines from $250,000 to up to $5 million, or even higher at the court’s discretion.
  • Registration for all importers, to add a greater degree of certainty to the food safety system.
  • More authority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to certify exporters, if required by other countries to facilitate trade.

There’s obviously more to the bill, but the highlights emphasize a tighter control and enhanced visibility to an organization’s Food Safety Management System, and their supply chain.

Take aways

Food Safety is under threat in the United States – spending and budget cuts are going to make a harder environment for promoting Food Safety;

The FSMA is still alive, but there’s a long road before we see any results on the dinner table;

GFSI still remains the key compliance area holding Food Safety processes together; and

Canada has made some movement into promoting Food Safety at the Federal level.

I sincerely hope that 2013 gives us a better view on Food Safety Management than it seems to be right now. But if not, it’s up to the producers to promote their continued commitment to adhering to the compliance standards that help them to operate a safe environment and produce the safest possible products for the food and beverage industry.

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The Private Food Label Dilemma

By Barbara Levin
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Prevention-based food safety and quality assurance technologies have a good return on investment, and may be critical to the ongoing financial health of the food private label industry.

Tuesday morning I had my typical breakfast while running out the door – Trader Joe’s almond butter on a toasted whole grain waffle. Good, and good for you, as my mom likes to say. Then of course I got to my desk, looked through my daily FSQA news feeds, and saw that the peanut butter recall was expanded to almond butter – and to other brands besides Trader Joe’s from the supplier, Sunland!

Well so far so good – I’m healthy and not in a high risk group, but it did make me think once again about the problem for food retailers that – in the need to remain competitive for shelf space in their own stores – have turned to private labeling for more and more products store-wide.

I’m a big fan of Trader Joe’s.  I buy a lot of their private label brands – everything from almond butter, to tomato sauce to olive oil. And they did a good job of aggressively getting the tainted nut butters off of their shelves.

But it does make one think of the added challenge for those manufacturing and selling private label goods – where a manufacturer problem can create a huge negative impact on your private label brand. Obviously in cases such as the Sunland nut butters, the ability to trace where the product had gone was key for recalling it. And while that ability is critical – the initial damage to the private label brands is done. Now, it’s just a matter of how extensive the damage is and how much it will cost to repair: loss of inventory, loss of sales, loss of consumer confidence and of course the cost of illness and related lawsuits which have already begun to follow.

And this doesn’t count the non-direct costs – such as advertising to eventually get those customers back – those who may now be “private label shy” and go back to the brand names under the perception that they may be safer.

We challenge the industry to look not just at reactive measures – but proactive, preventative measures as well. How are you leveraging food safety and quality technology? Are you using technology only to trace back once a problem has already occurred? Or are you also using technology to help prevent contaminated ingredients from going into production – and non-compliant finished goods from being labeled and shipped – in the first place. Are you as retailers putting this extra pressure on your manufacturers to take not just the reactive steps but the proactive ones as well?  

Prevention-based food safety and quality assurance technologies have a good return on investment, and may be critical to the ongoing financial health of the food private label industry. Have a thought on this topic? Join the conversation by posting a comment below.