Ever since the 2013 horsemeat scandal revealed how a major breakdown in the traceability of a food supply could slip under the radar, food manufacturers have been under pressure to offer far greater traceability for their products and regulators have to ensure that rules are being properly followed.

Despite increasing automation across the industry, 2015 saw recalls in the food and drink industry rise by 78%.

It is untenable for the industry to continue to fail to meet regulatory compliances on such a large scale, yet it must be asked how such failings are occurring and what can be done on the part of both manufacturers and regulators to prevent this trend continuing into the future.

Costs of failure

The food industry is colossal and full of alternatives. This means that it is very easy for a consumer to switch brand if their original brand of choice becomes caught up in a safety scandal. As much as the monetary cost can reach staggering heights, the risk to a brand’s reputation can also be huge as they become tied in consumers’ memory to their failure to ensure consumer safety.

Any time a company has to issue a recall, they fulfil a duty of care but also lose tens of millions in profit and swathes of consumer trust. It is therefore important for company systems to develop and although regulatory rigour may at times be an inconvenience, compliance is not only necessary to continue business in the face of the law but also to ensure that a brand is not forever tied to falsehood.

Regional vice-president in the UK and Ireland for Epicor Software Andy Archer said: “Not surprisingly, retailers are now demanding that food businesses cover the costs of losses incurred on their profits, as well as the administration fees and marketing spend associated with a recall.

"On top of that, the business may face government fines, insurance claims and many other indirect and reputational costs, including lost sales, exclusion from future range reviews and the impact to the company’s market value. In the first half of 2015 alone, insurance claims submitted by UK food manufacturers were worth almost a staggering forty million.”

Manufacturer malfeasance

Aside from legal requirements, there is a certain expectation that companies worth millions and who employ thousands of people across the globe should be able to account for where their product comes from. This is particularly so when we take into account the technology proliferating in the business in the form of machine vision systems that are able to inspect more than 3,000 small products per minute, and optical character verification, which is used to ensure correct labelling on products.

As recently as this February, however, Morrisons was forced to pull its Ready to Eat Peppered Beef Slices from shelves after it was found to contain listeria monocytogenes, a species of pathogenic bacteria. The continuation of scandals such as these suggests that even with the technology available, at some point in the supply chain there is a failure to sufficiently test the product.

Speaking of how manufacturers could better ensure product safety in the face of recalls, CEO of Ozo Innovations Rowan Gardner said: “There are many reasons for product recalls, in part we can detect non-conformities and contaminants more quickly and at lower levels than in the past.

"Monitoring and training of staff are the best approaches to minimising risks in the manufacturing operations. Smart devices that monitor systems can provide real time data on operations allowing excellence to be measured and processes to improve.”

Such monitoring systems are no doubt already in place and will continue to develop as time goes on. For now, it is possible to accept that the reason recalls seem more prominent on the manufacturers’ side is due to a greater ability to catch failures that may previously have slipped through the cracks combined with the increased visibility today’s media can place on such recalls.

It is vital to ensure that manufacturers are doing as much as possible on their end to fulfil their obligations. In particular, ensuring control at every stage of the process remains crucial for food safety. If standards are not maintained at every step, more recalls are likely to follow.

Regulatory rigour

Part of the issue faced in enforcing food standards is the divide between how much regulatory agencies such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) can cover alone and the extent they are reliant on the manufacturers’ themselves ensuring product safety. The FSA is seeking to update its regulatory model to be more adaptive but will seemingly forever have to contend with a certain amount of trust being placed in food businesses upholding their end.

An FSA spokesperson said: “Regulating our Future was launched in early 2016. We need to change the way food is regulated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland so that consumers can continue to trust the food they buy and eat.

"Business innovation has outstripped the way regulation has always been done and we need to keep pace with this new world to stop people being put at risk. We want businesses to take proper responsibility for food safety and local authority resources to be properly used.”

The threat is the reliance on businesses to do their part. While legal requirements are in place, and recalls and scandals have an obvious negative effect on a brand, there is an extent to which businesses may prioritise financial saving over guaranteed safety. Going forward, it is crucial that regulatory bodies are able to rely on those businesses fulfilling their duty as a foremost priority.

However, the FSA spokesperson added: “There is no indication of an increase in traceability issues nor is there evidence of stricter regulation driving the numbers of notifications that the FSA receives. The increase may be due to improved reporting from key stakeholders.”