Product recalls are set to increase off the back of new guidelines by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) specifying the processes to trace and remove unsafe food items from the market.
The Guidance on Food Traceability, Withdrawals and Recalls within the UK Food Industry published in February 2019 outlines food law requirements and clarifies the roles, responsibilities and expectations of the key stakeholders involved in the withdrawal/recall of unsafe food in the UK.
“The guidelines are now much clearer and more specific,” says Ian Harrison, Partner and Global Head of Recall Practice Group at Lockton.
“Through the new guidelines the regulator is stating its determination to strictly enforce the requirements".
“Through the new guidelines the regulator is stating its determination to strictly enforce the requirements. This is likely to result in higher cases of product recall as companies will be forced to act precisely according to the rules,” Harrison adds.
The guidelines introduce evidence on the application and effectiveness of legal requirements for food businesses and food enforcement authorities against which to base decisions for change and improvement. They also establish a clearer understanding of consumer awareness of recalls and behaviours in relation to the food recall system.
Specifically, the guidelines require that any “food business operator” (FBO), a term that includes food manufacturers, distributors as well as importers or exporters, identifies its suppliers of food, food-producing animals and any other substance intended to be incorporated into food. An FBO must also be able to identify the business customers to whom they have supplied products.
In order to be able to produce this information to the enforcement authorities on demand, FBOs need to develop a food traceability system and are advised to trade with suppliers and business customers that also have effective traceability systems and procedures in place.
The traceability of the whole value chain is needed to recall a product in the most effective and efficient way should this become necessary. Recent cases include two allergy-related deaths in the UK after the consumption of products from a Pret a Manger sandwich shop, one in 2016 and another in 2017. In the more recent case, the person died after eating a "super-veg rainbow flatbread" which was supposed to be dairy-free but that contained dairy protein, in the previous case the person had a sesame allergy and died after eating a baguette, which did not list the ingredients.
Under the new FSA guidelines, in order to make a decision to withdraw or recall food, the FBO needs to consider “the information provided to the consumer, including information on the label, or other information generally available to the consumer concerning the avoidance of specific adverse health effects from a particular food or category of foods”.
Recalls of unsafe food products already jumped 40 percent year-on-year to 203 in 2017/2018 (ending October) in the UK, according to data from insurance law firm RPC. Recalls specifically related to allergy risk rose 31 percent to 110 over the period.
Food products carrying allergy risk that have been recalled in the last year include gluten-free burgers, which contained undeclared traces of gluten, vegetable spring rolls, which included undeclared seafood, and stracciatella ice cream, which included undeclared nuts. More recently, in February 2019, Asda, Co-op and Waitrose decided to each recall a different product because of undeclared ingredients on the packaging FBOs may need to seek advice from technical experts and are advised to work with their enforcement authority, which depends on the type of food business, to determine the information needed and the steps necessary to carry out an effective risk assessment, the FSA notes.
UK manufacturers operate under significant price pressure, which can lead to greater risk exposure if product quality is compromised in favour of cheaper ingredients. Over half (56%) of manufacturers surveyed in a recent Lockton Food & Beverage Report are having to spend more on insurance.
Lockton’s research shows 44% of manufacturers surveyed are being forced to take out increased liability insurance purely to meet contractual demands from retailers. By pushing responsibility further down the supply chain, retailers are hoping to shelter themselves from any potential fallout should a recall or legal action occur.
A product recall can be an expensive logistical problem to solve, particularly when dealing with retailers who often insert fines or penalties into their contracts to cover instances of food contamination (which insurance won’t always cover).
The cost of a recall may include legal fees, the collection, transport and destruction of products, advertising and communications, which is far more costly than merely increased logistics.
“Product recall/contamination policies are likely to become a critical part of any food manufacturer’s risk planning,” Harrison says.
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