3 Effective Steps to Handling Product Recalls and Restaurant Communication

When you think of recalled food, what comes to mind? Spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, eggs? E. coli, listeria, salmonella? Last year, the USDA issued 150 recalls affecting 21 million pounds of meats and eggs alone. Add the number of recalls for produce, prepared foods, and everything in between, and the number spikes to 626 across the United States and Canada.

No, we are not in the middle of a food-apocalypse. The food supply chains and regulatory agencies are protecting consumers as they should. For the restaurant operators, this means one small step of extra vigilance for a big step to retain reputability.

Step 1: Find out about recalls as they happen.

While distributors should notify restaurants about recalls right away, communication may be delayed for a number of reasons.  During this time, you could be preparing tainted food for your clientele. Foodsafety.gov provides the latest information and updates on any foods recalls in the United States. Proactively sign up for real-time email alerts through their website or through the FDA website at any time. Their content covers invaluable information from the FDA, the Food and Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) arm of the USDA, the CDC, and HHS.

Chain restaurants or quick-service restaurants with multiple locations can use software and apps to communicate pertinent recall information in real-time and provide detailed traceability within the supply chain. High-tech innovators in this arena include the Steton Technology Group, BellTower Technologies, and FoodLogiQ.

Once you know about a food product that has been recalled, understand the reasoning for the issuance. Recalls are classified into three groups, and USDA lists them as such:

  • Class I: A health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause serious, adverse health consequences, or death.  Examples include E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, salmonella in peanut butter, or food with an undeclared allergen.
  • Class II: A health hazard situation where there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food. Examples include products containing a foreign material.
  • Class III: A situation where eating the food will not cause adverse health consequences. Examples include minor labeling problems, such as improper format or undeclared ingredients that are not allergens. (Source: www.usda.gov)

Step 2: Execute the plan.

Communicate immediately with all staff members that there is a recall on product you have in house or have used recently. Start by following the ServSafe steps:

  • Identify all recalled products.
  • Remove the items from inventory, and place them in a secure and appropriate location.
  • Store the items separately from food, utensils, equipment, linens, and single-use items.
  • Label the items in a way that will prevent them from being placed back in inventory.
  • Inform staff not to use those products.
  • Refer to the vendor's notification or recall notice to isolate or dispose of these products.

If you have a question, talk to your vendors and distributors as soon as possible. Additionally, keep copies of all paperwork associated with the recall and file them for reference for at least three years. This includes copies of invoices with dates of delivery, pictures of recalled product, lot and packing numbers, information on dates and time of destruction/disposal, and all return invoices and credits. Follow the distributor’s return policies to ensure monetary credit is received.

If one of your customers falls ill or suffers an allergic reaction from tainted foods that were part of a large recall, you will need to have every piece of information, including your internal process, to show regulatory agencies and inspectors.  

Step 3: Communicate with customers.

Today’s customers are demanding more and more information about their food and their sourcing. A plethora of recalls have press coverage at the local and national news level. Think Foster Farms chicken, Tyson chicken nuggets, Hallmark beef, and California spinach. Always remember to be transparent with your patrons about a recall. What are the best ways to do this?

  • Tell each staff member as start their shift that your establishment had recalled food on hand and that it has been appropriately isolated.
  • Train your front-of-house staff with specific talking points about any affected menu items or menu items that may not be available. If the customer inquires about a recall that was broadcast through the media, this will allow your staff to inform the customer that the menu item has been removed for the time being to ensure that all products prepared are safe for consumption.
  • Be prepared that customers may not want to eat certain things, even if your restaurant does not have affected food on hand. For example, a fresh spinach recall is in place, but your establishment uses frozen spinach to prepare entrees and sides. Service staff should inform customers that the spinach used is not part of the recall and their food is very safe to eat and just as delicious as it always was.
  • Watch your inventory levels and order for your current demand to minimize waste. For example, if tomatoes were recently indicted in a salmonella incident, patrons may not order an appetizer of bruschetta or any item that features fresh tomatoes. In fact, they may even ask to hold the tomatoes on a fresh salad. Be prepared that less ordered menu items will see a healthy increase in popularity.

Imagine the worst-case scenario: beef sides have been part of a large-scale mad-cow disease scare and recall, and you have the premier steakhouse in your region.  Your contracted supplier can no longer provide you with the beef you need for your everyday menu, and supply lines at the local docks are short. Do you close your doors for a short time? In the past, some restaurants have — and at a seriously debilitating cost.

Have an emergency plan in place to offer a limited but exquisite menu of chicken, veal, pork, seafood, and other pasta dishes in the interim.

While food safety and recalls will be a part of foodservice vocabulary forever, solid knowledge, communication, and executable plans will help you maintain profitability during short-lived tough times.