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Be Prepared for Food Recalls

21 March 2013

Being prepared and planning are key elements in preventing food safety emergencies and in mitigating their public health and socio-economic impacts and should be developed as part of the response to emergencies.

The FAO and World Health Organisation has drawn up a framework for food safety emergency planning to assist countries in the formulation and implementation of national food safety emergency response plans.

The FAO and WHO have also recognised that further guidance was necessary to ensure that countries are prepared to address food safety emergencies and now they have developed a guide to the application of risk analysis principles and procedures during food safety emergencies.

In the guide, the FAO/WHO say that national food recall systems provide a framework, put in place by national governments, to support competent authorities and food business operators in protecting public health through the effective removal of unsafe food3 from the market.

The principles taken into account when developing an effective national food recall system include:

  1. the legal framework,
  2. the powers of the competent authority,
  3. clearly defined roles and responsibilities,
  4. effective communication and notification,
  5. accurate record-keeping,
  6. guidance materials and training and
  7. review of the national food recall system.

A decision to recall a food can be triggered by a number of situations.

A recall is often initiated by a food business operator on the basis of their knowledge, or because they have reason to believe that a food is unsafe.

A recall may also be requested or ordered by competent authority on the basis of an assessment of information they have received from different sources, including their own government departments, other governments, (including international government sources) inspection activities and laboratory findings, or the consumer.

In any situation, the way in which the competent authority enforces a specific recall may vary according to the assessment of risk.

In the management of a food recall, the FAO/WHO say that it is important the competent authority leads the coordination activities between the different agencies and it takes a multiagency approach throughout the event.

An important aspect of the management of a food recall is an assessment of the distribution of the food subjected to the recall to determine whether notification of other agencies is necessary. Notification of such agencies is essential and serves as an alert to the recall.

The FAO/WHO say that a food recall is an important risk management option during food safety emergencies/events.

Recalls may also prevent the escalation of a food safety event into an emergency.

Effective national food recall systems require a specific legal framework and coordination among relevant government agencies together with the competent authority, as well as effective cooperation with food sectors along the food chain (e.g. industry, retail, trade and food services).

National food recall systems are most effective when key activities relating to preparedness are conducted routinely as part of a national food control system.

Food recalls can be resource intensive, both for government agencies and for the food industry.

They often require long-term vision, effort and investment.

When assessing the need for such investment, it is important to consider the benefits of:

  • protecting public health;
  • maintaining confidence in the product;
  • maintaining the good reputation of the country‚Äôs food products; and
  • future market access.

Traceability is a very important tool in achieving an effective food recall, as demonstrated in many countries. A traceability system may start with a very simple system using the one-step-back and one-step-forward principle.

Food recalls will be very difficult if there is no system of traceability in place.

During a food safety emergency, the presence of an effective food recall system is extremely helpful in minimising the impact of the event.

If the event has an international dimension, INFOSAN can be contacted to facilitate communication among the competent authorities involved.

Further Reading

You can view the FAO/WHO guide for developing and improving national food recall systems by clicking here.
February 2013

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