One of the things people probably most dislike is getting sick because of some food they have eaten — usually an annoying and unpleasant experience. The sickness can happen within hours or two to three days after eating the contaminated food. The trouble is that oftentimes one has no way of anticipating the disease until feeling sick, and sometimes even after becoming ill it is not easy to connect the disease with consumed food. A food item may come from a respected and trusted brand, the expiry date looks fine, the food may also taste good, and still without suspicion it may cause poisoning and sickness. Food companies are walking on the edge of food safety when they skip necessary precautionary measures to prevent and detect contaminations in time, but furthermore when they conceal problems or try to solve them quietly in the factory without warning of a looming health risk to their customers.
The most common infections and poisoning are caused by bacteria of the type of Salmonella, Listeria, and E-Coli. But a foodborne disease may also be viral (e.g., norovirus) or being caused by insects (e.g., food moth). For most people a foodborne disease is not dangerous; it will cause sickness and inconvenience, passing after a few days without medical treatment. Yet, these diseases may be troublesome and cause more serious complications in people whose health is vulnerable (e.g., little children, seniors, pregnant women, prior illnesses, weaken immune system).
This summer there were a number of incidents of food contamination revealed in Israel. Yet two of the cases are more significant and instructive: the cornflakes of Unilever (Telma) and ready-to-eat salads by Shamir Salads. First, the failures exposed in the conduct of the two concerned companies commend particular attention and taking lesson from them. Second, these incidents were the earliest to become public (late July, beginning of August) and have put the matter of food safety under a spotlight. A number of additional incidents of contamination may have been revealed just because of that, partly reported by alarmed food companies themselves (e.g., salmon fish, halva, frozen potato fries, pre-prepared grilled hamburger).
Unilever (Telma) — A contamination of salmonella was discovered by Unilever in Israel in packages of a few of its cornflakes products under the brand name of Telma (an Israeli-grown brand acquired by Unilever). The company insisted, however, that all contaminated packages remained in a company’s facility to be disposed of (they were converted into corn oil to be used as energy source for another industrial process). When upset consumers and the Ministry of Health pressured Unilever to provide assurances no packages reached food stores, the company claimed they had checked that the marked packages were separated and excluded from delivery in its facility. Only that this information was not accurate, not properly verified. It was soon after revealed that some 240 contaminated packaging parcels found their way out of the facility and distributed to food stores. Some of those cornflakes packages were probably consumed though no complaint of sickness was firmly connected with the cornflakes. Nevertheless, since cornflakes of the type contaminated are largely eaten by children, it is understandable that parents were strongly agitated by that belated discovery.
Unilever directed responsibility for the ‘mishap’ to an employee of a local logistics contractor who apparently mistakenly misplaced labels of some parcels for delivery and sent out the wrong packages. Even so, responsibility for the whole chain of supply of the products of Unilever rests with the company marketing them (not physically distributing them). That is the onus of the brand’s owner towards its customers. That Unilever failed to verify this mistake earlier makes the explanation just weaker.
Food safety experts suggest that it is unusual for a dry product like cornflakes to contract bacterial contamination of salmonella. Additionally, the cornflakes are roasted at a very high temperature that kills any bacteria that might have settled in the material. Therefore, it is much more likely that the culture of salmonella developed during the packaging or storage in preparation for distribution.
Shamir Salads — A contamination of salmonella was found in Mediterranean salads that contain tehina. Shamir Salads, like other food producers, buys the tehina mix as a raw material from a supplier, in this case a company named “HaNasich” (meaning “The Prince”). Badly enough, the grave problem for Shamir Salads is that the company did not identify the contamination itself. It failed twice: by not testing initially its raw material and by not testing the final salad product before delivery to retailers for any possible contamination. It should be clarified that laboratory tests are run on samples and therefore they cannot eliminate absolutely any contamination, but if sampling is conducted appropriately it gives a good chance of detecting the traces in time for further checks and corrective action. Skipping any sampling and tests cannot be excused.
The management of Shamir Salads argued in its defence that the company trusted its supplier, HaNasich, and therefore did not see any need to continuously check on the quality and safety of their tehina. The company was deeply disappointed and felt betrayed by its supplier for not advising them of any problems. The reference to the concept of trust between parties is not unfounded, but one can still check internally as a precautionary control measure without violating trust in the other party. A company does not have to trust blindly, especially not when a sensitive matter as health is concerned. It may even be doing a favour to its supplier that could miss contamination in its factory. Much less understandable is the lack of tests on the company’s finished products. If not before or during production, then at the very least testing of the finished salads would have given the company a chance of detecting a contamination before leaving the factory, investigating backwards and identifying the source in the tehina. Other companies (e.g., Strauss, Tzabar Salads) using the same tehina ran tests on their finished products and identified the contamination, linking it to tehina by HaNasich.
Both Unilever and Shamir Salads were actually forced to order recalls of their products. A recall becomes damaging in the public eye when the company does not seem to control the process and its timing, or is not honest with the consumers about the recall’s reasons and circumstances.
Complicated relations and flawed working of safety procedures in the food industry may have some responsibility for contamination getting lost or hidden from public knowledge. Companies have a reasonable interest to try to solve a problem in production they identify internally in hope they can contain it “behind closed doors”. It is a matter of calculated risk — but risks sometimes realise in a worse way. The Israeli Ministry of Health is criticised for not placing a proper procedure that requires food producers to perform microbiological lab tests on samples of finished product items and that current reporting procedures are vague. For instance, the companies are not required to report to the ministry until after ordering a recall due to contamination. Consequently, there are repeated conflicts over responsibility and blame-exchanges between producers and the Health Ministry. Furthermore, food companies are working with private labs that are in turn required to report directly to the Health Ministry only in case of contamination found in finished products and not in their raw materials. The implied outcome: food companies have a latent incentive to keep anything that happens in the factory silent, handle a “situation” for a longer time, and not report to anyone until the problem becomes severe or an urgent recall is inevitable.
Issues of food contamination and foodborne illnesses concern many countries, gaining particularly growing awareness in Western countries. The Fortune Magazine published an article, kind of special report, on problems of food safety in the United States (October 2015) titled “Contamination Nation“. The number of food recalls has grown more than twice from 2004 t0 2014 (2004: 288 recalls of which 240 of non-meat products; 2014: 659 recalls, 565 non-meat). Nearly half of recalls (47%) in the US are due to microbiological contamination. The highest proportion of recalls (21%) are of ready-to-eat food products.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 48 million Americans suffer each year of foodborne illnesses (128,000 are hospitalised and 3,000 die of a foodborne illness).
The writer, Beth Kowitt, proposes four reasons it is so hard to battle food contamination and poisoning; their relevance extends to Israel and to many other nations:
- Foodborne illnesses are very difficult to identify and track down their roots — cases of illness are sporadic and therefore hard to tie with a specific “outbreak”; hundreds of components may be involved in isolating a cause of poisoning.
- The food industry does not trust state regulators, their knowledge and tools — major food companies are performing their own tests for bacteria on food and in factory premises and develop a knowledgebase independent of state departments or agencies (FDA, CDC); companies are reluctant to disclose information they do not have to, part in concern of being implicated before the epidemiological mapping is completed.
- The more food is imported from other countries, the more difficult it gets to control and verify its safety — exporting countries have different food-safety standards and inspection regimes, and the more steps food passes before entering one’s destination country, there are more opportunities for becoming contaminated.
- Consumers have to do more to protect themselves — when consumers seek certain ingredients to be reduced or excluded (e.g., potassium, salt, sugar) or refrain from consuming frozen products because of health considerations, they could render their food less protected from bacterial contamination of their food; consumers are responsible for taking active measures to reduce contamination risks at their homes (e.g., washing hands, boiling milk, checking meat temperature).
It may be added to the last reason that safeguarding from food contamination may start from the facilities of the food producer but it should continue through the retailers’ food stores and finally indeed at the consumers’ home kitchens. Retailers are obliged to keep stores and displays cleaned-up at all times and ensure products are not kept beyond their expiry date (e.g., chilled dairy products, ready-to-eat meals, eggs). As for consumers, the American CDC recommends four practices for protecting from contamination: Cook to kill bacteria, Clean working surfaces, Separate more risky items (meat, fruits and vegetables) from other food, and Chill to reduce chance of bacterial cultivation.
Next to the article cited above, Fortune brings the story of the Texan-based Blue Bell ice-cream company which demonstrates what happens when a food company stalls treatment of contamination hazards at its plants and even hides them for too long. The crisis has rolled during 2015 but an investigation found that its roots may have existed since 2010. There were three deaths and two more serious patient ilnesses in the same Kansas hospital in late 2014, and in total ten people were affected by listeria-type infection connected with the ice-cream over five years; establishing the connection with Blue Bell was hard.
Contamination occurred in two plants: at Brenham, Texas ‘homebase’, and in Oklahoma. It appears that already in 2013 the company discovered contamination in its Oklahoma plant that was not treated properly despite an FDA inspection. Importantly, bacteria were found in that plant on floors and catwalks (i.e., bacteria can be easily passed with movement of workers and objects). Additional flaws were found in further inspections, including “condensation dripping from machinery into ice cream and ingredient tanks; poor storage and food-handling practices; and failures to clean equipment thoroughly”. Because of its stalling, the company drifted into what experts call “recall creep” — it happens when executives think limited action every time they are told of listeria findings is enough to solve the problem and constrain commercial damages, thence find themselves forced to perform greater recalls over and over again.
Blue Bell is the third-largest ice cream maker in the US and its products are widely admired. Many people across the country are said to have saddened by the closure of the plants and loss of their beloved ice cream for a period. This year the company resumed production and marketing, adding gradually more flavours and markets, after a thorough clean-up of plants, change of procedures and rules and training of employees. One of the practices installed is “test-and-hold” where a production series is sample-tested and all packs are held in storage until it is cleared from bacterial contamination.
A serious fatal crisis related to food safety in Israel occurred in 2003 with the milk formula for babies by Remedia. It should be noted this was not an incident of contamination. In this case the company made a change in the composition of one of its formula versions by which it drastically reduced or eliminated from the product the vitamin B1. This ingredient is vital for the development of the nervous system of babies. As a result, critical damage was caused to the health of babies: four babies died and several more children grew up with irreversible damage to their development (neural, cognitive and motor). Although this event is different, and the consequences in the recent contamination incidents are much less severe, two relevant notions are in order. First, a contamination incident can lead to just as severe consequences when the problem is mishandled and information is concealed from authorities and consumers as the crisis of Blue Bell proves. Second, Remedia made the grave mistake of throwing all the blame on a German company (Humana) that was hired to develop, implement and test the new recipe (and erred in its tests). However, Remedia was responsible and accountable for its product to the parents and babies in Israel, not the faulty German company it worked with. Remedia ceased to exist.
It is probably only human for the company’s managers to direct a justified accusation and blame for a failure on a contractor, supplier or business partner, as a way of saying: “Look, this is not a failure in our own operation; you can still trust us with everything we are doing for you”. It does mitigate responsibility somewhat, though from a consumer viewpoint this kind of ‘clearing’ does not work and is often doomed to be rejected. The companies that market the implicated products did allow them to be distributed to consumers. At the end of the day, it is their brand names on the products that count.
It is impossible nowadays to completely eliminate food contamination, particularly by bacteria. However, food companies (and not them alone) can and should make every effort for preventing bacterial and other types of contamination and poisoning. They are expected to show that they are proactively taking measures to that aim. In addition, the owners and executives have to be open and sincere about the causes or circumstances of recalls to consumers, and consider revealing incidents even beforehand as indication the company is acting responsibly. It is pure investment in the credibility of their brands.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
These articles appeared in Fortune (Europe Edition), Number 13, 1st October 2015:
“Contamination Nation”, Beth Kowitt, pp. 53-56.
“How Blue Bell Blew It”, Peter Elkind, pp. 56-58.