The great fear of any meat company would be the realization that contaminated products have reached the marketplace. It could be bacteria such as E. coli or Listeria or a foreign object concern, but the recall action and the subsequent government evaluation is sure to test the mettle of any processor. If a company has a strategy in place to deal with the event, it can survive the recall with its reputation and customer base intact.
One of the best ways to make it through a recall is to have prepared for such an event. Cardinal Meat Specialists experienced a product recall in 2007, when hamburger product that had tested positive for E. coli was traced back to the
“What would happen is you’d have an inspector for eight hours, and he’d be up to speed and you’d proven everything to him,” he says, “and he’d hand it off to another inspector in hour nine, asking you to bring him back up to speed and carry on.”
Cator and Cardinal’s management team had gone through mock recalls in the past, which helped prepare the company for the investigation. Still, the company has re-worked its recall plans to account for the sheer amount of management distraction it can create.
“We now have determined what non-essential things the president is going to hand off, and to whom, and how we will operate so the business itself doesn’t lose direction,” Cator says, adding that he relied on key managers to assist with the inquiries.
“The core group (from quality assurance, customer service, and the outside resources)
closest to the critical control points rose to the occasion beautifully, and they were well-trained in advance.”
Cardinal Meats kept its retail and foodservice customers aware of what was going on and what the company was doing through regular updates. Cator reports that Cardinal didn’t lose any customers as a result of the recall and went on to sign multi-year contracts with some of them.
Communication with the media is also important, and Cardinal had again prepared for this in advance. Whenever possible, Cator served as the spokesman from the company, utilizing the skills gained through media training.
“It is an important part of recall preparation that you know the message you want repeated in the industry,” Cator said. “Companies need to know how the public perceives you, how the media perceives you and how much of a distraction it can be is huge, if you don’t have your ducks in a row. I believe it is critical that companies know that.”
The investigation into Cardinal Meats didn’t result in any government-required changes, yet the company did make some operational changes. It has dramatically changed the way it evaluates its suppliers, taking into account both intervention steps and company culture.
“In doing so, we’ve limited our supplier base, but it’s a much more secure supplier base,” Cator says. “There are a lot of organizations with incredible interventions and technologies available, and people make the difference.”
Cardinal Meats has also become a leader in getting an N-60 labeling protocol approved for the meat industry. The N-60 E. coli O157:H7 testing claim would not be a kill step, Cator notes, but it would be a way to validate that the existing processes are working at harvest.
“What we are finding is that the companies that are aggressively testing with the best and latest N-60 protocols are able to identify whether their systems are working at the harvest operations and therefore take appropriate corrective actions,” he says.
A recall can happen in any facility, even in ones with top-of-the-line food safety measures. Still, investing in food safety systems well in advance, will make a recall more unlikely, and it will help a company in the event of a recall.
“Don’t wait for a recall to happen. Recognize you need to exceed in food safety in whatever the standards are,” Cator says. “You need to be the leading edge. That’s going to provide the security for your business, as it did for Cardinal.”