We wanted to get a sense of how retailers reacted to the events surrounding the “import alert” that affected product produced by Agropecuaria Montelibano. Save Mart thought it was in the clear and then learned its fresh-cut supplier had some of the questioned melons.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Director of Communications
Q: What steps did you take at the retail level when news of the cantaloupe outbreak surfaced?
A: We take ownership of recalls with the tools we have. When the FDA issued its alert on Saturday, March 22, our buyers were following up and our suppliers were in contact with us as well. The FDA said the problem was connected to a grower/packer in Honduras. We didn’t have any melons from this grower. We always try to do what we can to educate consumers on food safety issues and recalls.
We posted a sign at point of sale where we merchandise the whole melons advising consumers the products on display were not impacted by the recall. We did that so consumers coming in the stores would know our cantaloupes were fine. The sign said that products on display today are not involved with this recall.
Our toll-free number was on there and the FDA number and website if they had questions. We also put the recommendations from the FDA on steps consumers can take to protect their cantaloupe from foodborne illness using the bullet points from the FDA release. (Editors Note: store managers are instructed to remove the recall sign on Monday, March 31, 2008).
Q: Do you have a photo of the sign on a merchandising display?
A: No picture, but the text reads as follows:
CONSUMER NOTICE: Recall Information
FDA has issued an alert on Cantaloupe from Agropecuaria Montelibano, a Honduran grower and packer because it appears to be associated with a Salmonella Litchfield outbreak in the U.S. and Canada.
Products on display today are NOT involved in this recall.
Call the Save Mart toll free number: 800 692-5710 if you have any questions or contact FDA directly at 888-INFO-FDA or visit their web site at www.fda.gov.
FDA recommends that consumers take the following steps to reduce the risk of contracting Salmonella or other foodborne illnesses from cantaloupes:
- Purchase cantaloupes that are not bruised or damaged.
- Refrigerate cantaloupes promptly.
- Wash hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling fresh cantaloupes.
- Scrub whole cantaloupes by using a clean produce brush & cool tap water immediately before eating. Do NOT use soap or detergents.
- Use clean cutting surfaces & utensils when cutting cantaloupes. Wash cutting boards, countertops, dishes & utensils with hot water & soap between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, or seafood & the preparation of cantaloupe.
- If there happens to be a bruise or damaged area on the cantaloupe, cut away those parts before eating it.
- Leftover cut cantaloupe should be discarded if left at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Use a cooler with ice or use ice gel packs when transporting or storing cantaloupes outdoors.
Q: When did you receive information that some of your fresh-cut fruit products might contain the Honduras cantaloupe in question?
A: [March 24] is when we learned from Garden Highway, run by Renaissance Food Group, that they were just notified some of their products might include cantaloupe from this implicated Honduras grower. They said the product in question had a sell-by date of March 22.
We put out a notice to stores immediately to make sure there was nothing remaining; they checked shelves and reported back to our food safety area. In recalls, they tally and pull product and destroy.
It is possible product could have made its way home. We were concerned that it could be in people’s refrigerators. We put out a release and then updated it with additional information that went to all the media and T.V. stations in our markets and print outlets as well.
It provided detailed packaging information and dates so consumers could check. We also run these releases on our consumer websites for Save Mart, Lucky and FoodMaxx Stores. We don’t have a separate button on our websites that consumers can click for food safety alerts like some retailers do, but this is a work in progress.
Q: Did you also alert consumers with in-store signage about the fresh-cut fruit problem following the original signs reassuring consumers your whole melons weren’t involved?
A: We posted signs up in the stores listing specifically which mixed fruit was on the recall notice and the sell-by dates on it. We didn’t have any products in the store at that point but wanted to be sure to inform consumers who might have purchased these products and had them in their homes.
Q: What was consumer reaction? Did they express concern or confusion? Were product sales of cantaloupe or other produce categories impacted?
A: We did get calls initially regarding whole cantaloupes, when people didn’t know what was going on. We assured our customers that our cantaloupes were fine and they seemed to be OK with that. And it was backed up the next time they went into the store and saw the notice confirming what they had been told. The managers moved quickly to get signs up, and at that point we didn’t get many calls.
I didn’t get any messages from store managers that anything was out of hand. If there had been an issue, I would have heard about it, and can assume things were fine.
I’ve been trying to assess if sales were affected, but haven’t gotten feedback yet from the produce managers. I’d take an educated guess that we didn’t experience anything too impacting.
Q: When FDA put out the initial alert on March 22, it named the Honduras grower Agropecuaria Montelibano, but not the brand names that consumers would know. Couldn’t this create more complications?
A: I can’t speak for all retailers, but a majority of produce carries a sticker of what region it came from, and the cantaloupes probably would have had a sticker that would indicate it. The problem is that not all Honduras cantaloupes are bad. Consumers would need to check with retailers to find out if the melons they bought originated from that particular grower.
On recalls, what also can be confusing is they can grow, because you learn about one part, and then several days later learn more, like here where the Honduran grower’s cantaloupes ended up in fresh-cut product. This makes it a challenge. Pre-packed fruit comes into us in cases; it’s not done in-store. There is always a potential the cantaloupe involved in the outbreak could have been used in other products.
Q: At this point, though, do you think you’ve eliminated all the products that could be implicated in this case?
A: At this time, this problem with Garden Highway mixed fruit products is all we’re aware of. If tomorrow, we find out something else is a problem, we will act immediately.
We can only respond as quickly as we receive the information. We are who the consumers associate with most directly. It may have been a supplier or grower or packer that may have done the error or had the problem, but what happens is the retailer is who the consumer looks to. A great deal of responsibility rests on the retailer.
Sometimes suppliers will do a voluntary recall. Based on internal testing, they don’t want to take chances. It might not necessarily reach the FDA, or no sickness has been reported so no evidence exists, but a lot of suppliers will want to be cautious. We act on those recalls like we would on an FDA advisory recall. It makes no difference to us. It’s all a matter of protecting consumers.
Q: Your actions related to this cantaloupe incident seemed to calm your customers. Do you find shoppers generally have confidence in the safety of produce and your role in the process?
A: Consumers are getting antsy about numerous recalls happening. Everyone needs to remember our food supply is the safest in the world; 25 years ago, we didn’t have the testing controls and information we have now. When people got sick, they didn’t have knowledge that it could be associated with foodborne illness.
A lot of recalls occur because of early detection so we are able to get tainted product out of the supply chain before it compromises anybody. We’re still putting up consumer notices and letting our shoppers know we are acting. Consumers just have to have some confidence in the process. They need to know that things have gotten better with diligence at all levels.
Q: With food safety demands intensifying on the supply side, what is your perspective as a retailer?
A: Obviously our suppliers do extensive food safety measures and internal testing at grower and processor levels to insure safe food and hopefully get problems out of the system before there is harm. Everybody has their responsible part, and we have to do what we can at store level because we’re the last place product ends up before it reaches the consumer.
We have our own internal food safety certification program. As part of our due diligence as a company, here within the retail environment, we have a lot of practices to protect food. Store managers and assistant managers are all certified in food safety through the national registry of food safety professionals, which they are required to maintain getting recertified every two years, and department managers go through our own internal food safety course.
When these recalls happen, our buying teams are integrally involved. They have a strong knowledge of who they buy from. We require certification of suppliers’ safety practices in cultivating, growing, processing and packing, and we know they have a paper trail to track where product is coming from and going to.
Our suppliers communicate food safety information if it impacts us and we can share our knowledge with consumers. If they call on our toll free line, we’ve gotten the information from our buying source. We also notify our stores. Managers are in the loop from the beginning. They can talk to customers at the store level. Notices are posted at point of sale. If our customers are still confused, they can go to our consumer line and we can answer their questions or refer them to government or industry organizations to learn more.
But the consumer has a responsibility to get food home in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the integrity and to follow good food safety practices at home. We don’t expect every consumer to go through a food safety course, but we can teach them the simple things like don’t cut up fruits and vegetables and meat on the same cutting board. We must take responsibility as an industry to educate consumers.
A few significant points:
Retailers view a statement by the FDA as gospel. What choice do they have? Imagine the liability of getting a notice from the FDA and then selling something from which a consumer gets sick. No chain will take that liability. As a practical matter the FDA power to make pronouncements is functioning like a constructive recall.
Traceability has to be a characteristic of the fresh-cut industry and its products. It doesn’t seem wise for retailers to have to wait for vendors to give them information. Every lot number should have connected to it all the sourcing data so that any retailer could log into the vendor’s website, enter a lot number and know the answer to the supplier instantaneously.
Although Alicia Rockwell didn’t have sales data, shippers of melons from other places tell us that demand has collapsed for cantaloupes. What we don’t know is if this is consumer hesitation or if retailers are just deciding to go without cantaloupes for a while or if they are just reducing space allocations and not putting them on ad.
In any case, we appreciate Alicia Rockwell and Save Mart letting the industry know how they dealt with this particular situation.