Solid records can help weather a food recall

An Alberta family shares what happened to them after their meat operation was linked to contaminated pork

Hardly a week passes without a food recall, somewhere in Canada, involving allergens, unlabelled ingredients, foreign material or potential bacterial contamination in food.

They can affect food companies large and small. An owner of one of those small companies, Irvings Farm Fresh, recently chose to share her story about a food recall as advice to those who may face a similar event.

The Round Hill, Alta., area family operated pork facility was caught up in a recall that began in the Meat Shop at Pine Haven, a store and pork operation near Wetaskiwin, Alta., operated by the Pine Haven Hutterite Colony.

The operation was linked to pork products contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 in April 2018.

An estimated four dozen people took ill, potentially in connection with consuming pork. The matter is the subject of a class action lawsuit.

Irvings Farm Fresh got some of its pork supply from Pine Haven and was caught up in the recall, said Nicola Irving.

“The first we knew about it was on April the 18,” said Irving, when a health inspector came to the door.

“We weren’t too concerned initially…. We thought we were just part of routine checking.”

Then came officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who took samples of several types of sausage made at the farm for testing.

“That whole weekend, we didn’t know what to do,” Irving said during an Explore Local/Alberta Agriculture webinar.

“It was a pretty nerve-wracking weekend.”

On April 23, CFIA confirmed that meat from their supplier had tested positive for E. coli.

“(It) was really the worst news that we could have heard.”

Nicola and Alan Irving started their business in 2006 after moving from the United Kingdom. Their modern pork facility, provincially licensed and subject to regular health inspections, processes their free-range Berkshire hogs into a variety of meat cuts and sausage. They couldn’t produce enough pigs to create all the products sold, so they sourced some pork from Pine Haven.

Though the Irving facilities and pork subsequently tested negative, they fell under the recall as a Pine Haven customer. Pine Haven products were also subject to recall at the time, as were several other operations that had sourced its products.

Going into “recall mode,” the Irvings identified all potentially contaminated pork through their records and removed it from the marketplace. That was a challenge because they sell about half their inventory at farmers markets. The rest is marketed through restaurants, retail and farm-direct sales.

The CFIA required records of customers and proof that those customers had been informed of the recall. It also sought and found proof that proper food production procedures were followed and that subsequent product was not at risk of contamination.

The Irvings had no list of farmers market customers, making it impossible to officially notify all of them. They used the CFIA’s suggestion for an official recall letter to restaurants and stores and posted information on their website.

At farmers markets, every customer for the next month was told about the recall and offered a full refund or replacement if they had purchased product that fell in the affected production period.

Recalled products returned to them were destroyed and proof of that was provided to the CFIA, said Irving.

She is thankful that their business kept good records and that she carefully saved all emails and notifications associated with the recall.

Having come through the event, the business added packing dates to all its product labelling, which in hindsight would have prevented them from recalling more product than was necessary.

“Our record keeping was good but we really felt that we could improve it,” Irving said.

They also changed some descriptions on raw and uncooked product. Proper cooking kills E. coli, so it is important for customers to realize the need for cooking of some items.

Dealing with the media during the recall proved “a little overwhelming,” Irving said. Their insurance company hired a media consultant, which was helpful.

“We were worried about how to handle questions,” and the effect the recall and their response to it would have on the operation.

“We didn’t even know if we would have a business, going forward,” she said.

Responding to social media comments was yet another challenge.

“It was very hard to keep up with the comments but we felt we owed it to our customers … to give personal responses.”

Even so, comments from internet trolls were “soul destroying,” she said, and eventually had to be blocked.

On the positive side, most of their customers simply wanted product replaced and they remained loyal to the business.

“That helped us through. It really did.”

Irving cautioned other businesses to read the fine print on insurance policies. They had added recall coverage to their policy in 2017, which covered product disposal costs, wages and time spent obtaining recalled product and informing customers and cost of a lawyer and media consultant.

It did not cover the cost of the product lost. Loss of inventory created cash flow challenges several months down the road, and insurance premiums rose by 25 percent.

Irving said Pine Haven kept them informed throughout the process and voluntarily closed its facility during the investigation. Since then staff there have done their utmost to remedy the problem, she said. As a result, Irvings Farm Fresh continues to use it as a supplier.

“They proved to us that they went above and beyond…. They probably have some of the safest pork out there available in the province,” said Irving.

Her advice to others:

  • Keep detailed records.
  • Test your traceability system.
  • Check your insurance policy.
  • Practise due diligence in sourcing supplies.

“Never assume it won’t happen to you,” she concluded.

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