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Recall Malaise

A flood of food recalls may end up desensitizing public response to them.

By Jesse Fruhwirth
Posted // August 5,2009 -

When basic food ingredients are found to be unsafe, like dominoes, it fouls up dozens of companies down the line. Two local businesses have learned this the hard way when they purchased milk ingredients from the Minnesota-based Plainview Milk Cooperative.

After the U.S. Food & Drug Administration discovered salmonella in Plainview’s Minnesota facility, and because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had previously detected salmonella in a product that used Plainview’s ingredients, the FDA urged Plainview (it can’t force a recall on an unwilling company) to recall its ingredients.

Plainview agreed to recall the instant nonfat dried milk, whey protein, fruit stabilizers and gums (thickening agents) sold over the past two years only to retailers.

It’s become such a major product recall that it has its own Website on the FDA’s domain, where consumers can peruse a growing list of 273 downstream products sold by 27 different firms—including Kroger Co., Natural Foods Inc. and Malt-O-Meal Co.—that have been recalled as a result of the Plainview recall.

Salt Lake City-based Plentiful Pantry is one such company issuing a recall because it used Plainview ingredients in 3,955 almond pound cakes sold over the last two years.

“This was the first time we´ve ever had to do this,” office manager Kelly Harris said. “With this recall, there was really no danger in the pound cake, whatsoever. Every single thing we got back from every single customer, there was no illness.”

Harris said the recall was “very expensive,” but said Plentiful Pantry’s owner did not want to give details on the cost to her business for fear that doing so would be perceived as critical of FDA.

The other local company affected by the Plainview recall is TheReadyStore.com, operated by Riverton-based Saratoga Trading Company. The company sells food storage and emergency preparedness products. Saratoga Trading recalled Dairy Shake mixes it sold over the past two years. The company Saratoga bought the shakes from recalled 6,300 of them because they contain Plainview products.

Jonathan Dick, sales and marketing manager for Saratoga Trading Company, questioned whether the Plainview recall was worth the time, effort and money so many companies are putting into it. He thinks the Plainview recall “was just absolutely ridiculous.”

The FDA urged Saratoga Trading to rush e-mails to customers and “twisted our arm” to send out a paper letter as well, Dick said, even though most of his customers are e-commerce. Customer-service representatives fielded concerned calls, the company lost revenue since the Dairy Shakes can no longer be purchased and TheReadyStore brand may have been damaged. Dick estimates product refunds and exchanges will cost his company somewhere between $2,000 to $3,000, but “the cost of the actual product was only 10 to 20 percent of the actual cost we incurred.”

The FDA admits there are no known illnesses caused by Plainview ingredients but defends the precaution. “Our goal is to prevent outbreaks before they happen,” FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek. “We are here to protect and promote the public’s health.”

When asked about the cost to businesses—and thus consumers— of a recall like Plainview’s, Kwisnek repeated several times that all recalls are voluntary. In reference to Dick’s claim, that the FDA was heavy-handed despite having no official power to force a recall, she said, “We help the companies remove contaminated product from the marketplace.”

Salmonella is a foodborne bacteria that can kill the old, young and weak. Healthy people are more likely to get severe or mild diarrhea but could develop other more worrisome infections.

Attorney Bill Marler knows deadly food. He has represented consumers in high-profile food-liability lawsuits, including the mother featured in the 2009 documentary Food, Inc., whose son died from food poisoning, as well as the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli deaths, garnering a $125 million judgment for his clients in that case. He also testified before Congress regarding a sweeping food safety bill that was passed July 30 by the U.S. House of Representatives and now moves onto the Senate.

Marler compared the Plainview milk recall to the 2006 spinach recall— in which FDA told consumers and merchants to throw away all spinach, regardless of its origin. His genetics experts had strong evidence that the E. coli was coming from one harvest of a 50-acre field in Mexico, he said. About one month later, the FDA concluded Marler’s experts were correct, but during that month, the industry was crippled. “It threw the spinach industry under the bus,” Marler said.

He says the Plainview recall is “in a sense” a success story because the recall was issued before any illness was discovered, but he said two years of consumers eating the stuff and not getting sick is relevant. “Why are you recalling anything if nobody got sick?” He worries that too many recalls lead consumers to misjudge their importance or not hear about them at all.

Moab may be faced with just such recall-indifference. Salmonella-tainted beef sickened 14 Coloradans in July— eight were reportedly hospitalized— prior to a recall by Kroger Co.-owned grocery store chain King Soopers. Moab’s City Market grocery store, also Kroger-owned, sold the contaminated meat, and the town’s newspaper alerted Moab residents to look for the contaminated meat a week later.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food coordinates with federal regulators to manage and publicize recalls. It issued no press release regarding the contaminated meat at Moab’s City Market because, according to department spokesman Larry Lewis, “If there is a serious recall … I do a news release.”

Indeed, in June, the department’s efforts publicizing a different beef recall that impacted Kroger-owned Smith’s stores in Utah received extensive media attention.

As to the Moab beef recall, food program safety supervisor Jay Schvaneveldt explained, “We didn’t get information on that one right away.” That may be because there were 60 food recalls issued by the FDA and USDA in July, many of them related to Plainview.

Even if regulators can juggle 60 recalls a month, attorney Marler said, it might be “too much information” for consumers to digest.

People who bought contaminated meat in Moab may have been alerted by the store itself. Signs are posted in stores when recalls occur, but there’s no guarantee customers will see them. A company representative said Kroger uses shopping savings cards to alert customers when products they purchased have been recalled, but if customers don’t use the cards, or did not provide accurate contact information when signing up, they won’t receive that communication.

 
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