Recalls, Big and Small, Impact Food Waste (Waste Matters! Part 7)


In recent weeks we have talked through the many challenges facing today’s food supply chain that can sometimes lead to food going to waste. These challenges included an overall lack of visibility in the supply chain, last-minute changes to purchase orders and over ordering. But another issue we haven’t discussed yet is food recalls.

No matter how large a recall is – whether it is localized and involving a limited amount of product or a nationwide recall affecting millions of units – it has an impact on how much food goes to waste in the US. And, I’m not talking about just the food involved in the recall (the food pulled from store shelves due to bacterial contamination or undeclared ingredients, etc.). Recalls lead to food waste due to a matter of consumer perception as well.

A Recall’s Wider Reach

The issue of food recalls came up in a recent conversation I had with Kevin Brooks, senior vice president of marketing at iTradeNetwork – a provider of supply chain management solutions for the food industry. He told me, typically, there is at least some small food recall affecting a food product every week of the year. For one reason or another (such as a manufacturing error leading to a health risk) a company issues a recall, directing retailers to clear their inventory. These items cannot be sold to consumers, or if they have already, they should not be eaten. (You can check out all the food recalls issued within the last year on the US Food and Drug Administration’s website, and see why these products were pulled from the market.)

Kevin brought up the major recall of cantaloupes in 2011. Whole melons from Jensen Farms, Colorado, were recalled across the nation due to Listeria contamination. The contaminated cantaloupes also led to a multistate outbreak of Listeriosis (an infection caused from the bacteria). About 145 people became ill and 33 people died as a result, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This was a serious recall, affecting a large number of products and people. However, the recall was isolated to a certain cantaloupe from a certain producer. Yet what happens when such recalls are issued is consumers stop buying not just Jensen Farms cantaloupes but all cantaloupes from any grower.

“The minute something like that occurs, people are not going to buy it,” Kevin said. “Regardless of where the melon comes from.”

This means that perfectly safe, bacteria-free melons sit on store shelves not being bought due to consumer perception that all cantaloupes are, at that time, dangerous. And, ultimately, this leads to wasted cantaloupes.

With the hundreds of food recalls that occur annually, it’s easy to see how these events lead to large amount of wasted foods throughout the country.

Stay tuned for future installments of our Waste Matters! series. Next, we will talk about where some of the excess food in the supply chain goes: to feed the needy. We share our insights from a recent conversation with the Chicago Food Depository, which collects food from grocery stores and uses it to feed those at soup kitchens and shelters.

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