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Improving food recalls

Jul 5, 2016

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated food each year. That's one in six people.

One of the big challenges for companies is tracing those food products and getting them off the shelves quickly.

Kaitlin Wowak is an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. She’s the lead author of a new study in the Journal of Business Logistics. She says a number of factors determine how difficult it is to recall a food product quickly.

“It can be a variety of different things. It can be how widespread a product is distributed. So if it’s only distributed to certain states or across an entire country, that can be much more difficult to trace back what the root cause of a problem is," Wowak says. Also, "if the product flows very quickly, all the product could be consumed before the company has a chance to respond.”

Another complication is the way products are identified. Companies mix raw ingredients to make them; those ingredients have unique identifiers, and so does the finished product.

“When raw ingredients come into a manufacturing plant, they have their own IDs. Let’s take salsa: when they’re blended into a salsa container, the salsa gets a new unique identifier that doesn’t necessarily connect to the raw ingredients," Wowak says. "So if something’s wrong with that salsa, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to determine [what's wrong]. Is it the tomatoes that are wrong, is it the jalapeno pepper that’s wrong, what batches of the tomatoes are wrong?

"So getting the new identifier for that product can make traceability much more difficult than having a way to link the raw ingredients to the finished product.”

She says companies could handle traceability better by connecting the raw ingredient ID to the finished product ID with a nickname, or a way to bridge the two IDs together.

You can hear more in today's Environment Report above.