The story of what happened this summer when spinach was contaminated by a virulent strain of E. coli is first a tragedy for the families of those who died. It is second, a compelling detective story that unfolded as health officials around the nation scrambled to identify the source and the cause of the outbreak (a strain eventually identified by scientists as E. coli 0157: H7).
It is also a story about food distribution and the ability of those who ship food around the nation to track in detail where their shipments have come from and where they go. When something goes awry, that "field to fork" tracking information can offer valuable clues to the problem's source and allow those who manage the affected supply chains to react swiftly and effectively.
The outbreak in August and September led to three deaths and sickened at least 200 people in 26 states. Using a bar code from a bag of tainted spinach, investigators eventually traced the source of the outbreak to plants grown in California. Grocers and distributors responded immediately, pulling fresh spinach from store shelves, distribution centers and processing facilities. During subsequent weeks, investigators narrowed the source of the contamination further to the world's largest supplier of organic produce, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif. The company provides vegetables for 34 regional and national food brands, among them Dole Fresh Vegetables. At least nine bags of baby spinach later discovered to be tainted with the E. coli bacterium carried the Dole brand and were packed by National Selection Foods.
Dole's response to the situation came long before the company received any confirmation that some of the contaminated products had been packaged under its brand. As soon as there was a suspicion that vegetables might be the cause of the E. coli outbreak, Dole began discussions with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other authorities to help determine the source. Dole also began making preparations to recall products if and when it was warranted.
"As these events unfold, you do not know at first what the problem is, but you need to prepare and begin discussions as soon as possible," says Steve Robinson, Dole's vice president of business process development. "We maintain a database of all customer data. We track all movements of each pallet and case that we manufacture using bar codes that are scanned at each step. If a recall is needed, we know specifically the date of and lot numbers of the products involved and can call up in the system to see exactly where that product was shipped."
Dole relies on homegrown software systems for product tracking and tracing. As orders leave the facility, specific information about the products and their destinations is recorded in the system. Much of that information is then shared with customers through advance ship notices.
Once the FDA had determined that bagged spinach was the cause of the E. coli contamination, Dole immediately pulled its customer records to see where fresh spinach was shipped. It then sent e-mails to customers notifying them of the need to remove and destroy all bagged spinach in the food pipeline.
"We make sure that our food safety programs are well entrenched," adds Robinson. "Traceability is part of good food safety. It starts in the field, [extends] on through manufacturing, and then continues once it leaves us."
Hannaford Brothers, a retail grocer with 150 stores in New England, was also deeply involved in the spinach recall. "We were all impacted and had product in the pipeline," recalls Gerry Greenleaf, vice president of distribution. "When we got the notice, we mobilized our systems very fast."
Information from Hannaford's EXE warehouse management system showed which stores had received spinach shipments, according to assigned product codes. Since this recall required that all spinach be destroyed, managers did not have to check for individual lot numbers. The company pulled the affected products from its three DCs and immediately notified stores using a Web-based application that delivers a pop-up alert to each store manager.
"E-mail is great, but it does not get attention always," says Greenleaf. "With the spinach, we were able to communicate quickly to retail using the alert system."
Though in this instance stores were instructed to destroy all their spinach, that's not usually the case. In most recalls, stores are simply told to send the recalled items back to the DC on the next available truck. From there, products go to a reclamation center where they are either returned to the manufacturer or destroyed. Greenleaf adds that any recalled product that is in transit (inbound from the manufacturer to the DC) is merely refused at receiving and sent back to the manufacturer.
Though most consumers would be surprised to hear it, the United States has no laws requiring companies to recall products found to be defective. It does, however, have a law requiring companies in the food supply chain to keep track of their goods' whereabouts. Passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that law, the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, calls for companies to maintain detailed records for use in the event of a recall or a terrorism-related investigation.
"The Bioterrorism Act requires anyone who touches food products to be able to identify the immediate previous source of the food and the immediate subsequent recipient of the food," says Deborah White, associate general counsel for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). FMI is a trade association serving 1,500 food retailers. Along with the record-keeping requirements, the act also stipulates the registration of facilities that handle food and places certain regulations on imported foods. It covers fruits, vegetables and alcohol products. (Meat and chicken, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, do not fall under this legislation.)
In the event of an infectious outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration is given investigatory responsibility for tracing the infection back to its origins, relying on records kept by suppliers throughout the chain. When the FDA comes knocking on a food distributor's door, it had better have a good, trustworthy and accurate method of sharing that information quickly.
These days, that record-keeping method is almost certain to be electronic. There are many software programs that offer the ability to record and track lot numbers and date codes. Most inventory control systems and warehouse management systems (WMS) have fields for recording this information, in addition to the specialized software programs geared specifically for tracking and tracing functions.
One example is software maker Aldata's G.O.L.D. Track line of software, which is used by many grocery wholesalers and retailers to track and trace products through the supply chain. Along with recording lot and batch numbers and manufacture dates, the software also stores information such as expiration dates, the temperatures a product is exposed to along its journey, and country of origin for imported goods. Typically, the information needed to populate information fields resides in electronic form and is handed from the supplier to the recipient for automatic entry into the warehouse management system. This information is then passed along to customers.
Lot numbers and product codes are typically also recorded on invoices, bills of lading and other documentation shared between suppliers and customers, according to Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety for FMI.
"In general, there is a link from the retailer to the distributor and back to the supplier. They work as partners," she says. Enterprise, inventory management and warehouse control systems are also designed to make it easy to exchange this information. Once a threat is identified, stores can now be notified in hours, not days, Hollingsworth adds.
Because goods being recalled may be in transit when the notification goes out, transportation companies also need to be a part of the information chain. "This requires a software handshake between the transportation guys, the suppliers and the retailers," says Bruce Bowen, vice president of retail solutions for Aldata. "Often this is done through a simple exchange of XML data."
Going into withdrawal
Recalls that make the news, like the case of the contaminated spinach, are relatively rare. More often, companies recall products for much less serious reasons. Oftentimes, the cause is a manufacturing error, like the failure to add an ingredient during processing. Though perfectly safe to eat, these products might not taste the way consumers expect, so the company decides to withdraw them from the market.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as packaging can prompt a recall. One breakfast cereal manufacturer recently recalled a kids' cereal brand because of a crossword puzzle on the back of the cereal box. When viewed a certain way, the puzzle appeared to have a rather inappropriate answer. Though there was nothing wrong with the cereal, the manufacturer nonetheless chose to pull the product.
Whether the threat is minor or serious, food suppliers still must have a recall plan in place. Keith Arntson, Del Monte's distribution manager for western states, says that recalls are an infrequent occurrence at the company's Lathrop, Calif., DC, which distributes mostly canned goods. But it has nonetheless established a detailed procedure.
"We very rarely recall products," he says, "but when we do, we directly contact our customers by e-mail. Then we follow up with a letter." The Lathrop facility's DC Wizard warehouse management system captures item and date codes as products are shipped so that a list of where affected lots were delivered can be easily generated to initiate a customer contact.
Arntson says that there are times when a canned product is recalled because of a labeling defect. In those instances, the cans often can simply be relabeled and redistributed to customers. If there's a problem with the cans' contents, however, they're usually sent back to the supplier's DC for further evaluation. In a few cases, the customer is instructed to destroy the product.
Randy Fletcher, vice president of logistics and supply chain management for Associated Grocers, says his distribution center in Baton Rouge, La., receives about one recall a week from his many suppliers. Associated Grocers is a cooperative of more than 220 independent grocers in the South. Fletcher says the notification of the recall, usually in e-mail form, normally comes from the suppliers themselves. FMI also notifies its members when a recall occurs. "Both our buyers' software systems and our Retalix WMS have the ability to record and find lot numbers," says Fletcher. "We can track upstream from where we got the product and downstream to where we sent it."
Associated Grocers then uses a variety of methods to get the message out to its customers, including e-mail, fax and notification on the company Web site. "Within an hour, we send out the first notification to customers," Fletcher says. "We use any method we can to assure that notice is given promptly."
He then follows up the electronic notifications with a hard copy that provides further details, such as the severity of the threat and the procedure for dealing with the product.
During the recent spinach scare, Associated Grocers was told to destroy all of the spinach it had in its warehouse. The cooperative sent the same instructions to its stores, directing that all spinach be destroyed, even though Associated Grocers did not have any spinach from the contaminated supply. (Its spinach comes from Florida.) That was in accordance with FDA recommendations as a precaution, as the source of the tainted spinach was still being investigated. Public confidence was also a consideration. Given the severity of the threat, most grocers did not want to risk alienating customers by continuing to carry any bagged spinach whatsoever, regardless of source.
In less critical recalls, stores are instructed to return recalled products to Associated Grocers' DC in Baton Rouge. From there, the distributor works with suppliers to determine what to do with the product. Some is destroyed, some is sent back to the supplier to be relabeled. In the case of the cereal boxes with the offending crossword puzzles, Associated Grocers was instructed to cut off the puzzles from the boxes, send the puzzles to the manufacturer as proof of credit, and donate the cereal to a food bank.
"We don't want to destroy it if it is consumable," adds Fletcher.
As bad as it was, this summer's contaminated spinach scare could have been much worse if not for the fast response on the part of the FDA and the food industry. Relying on their software systems, grocery suppliers, wholesalers and retailers were able to quickly pull products from shelves to assure the integrity of the supply chain.
"There is always a delay ... until the person is diagnosed and we know what the cause is," says FMI's Hollingsworth. "But once that is determined, the system works quickly and effectively."