Eggs in the Midwest. Deli meat at Wal-Mart. Food recalls are unsettling.
Each new food recall serves as a reminder about how food processors have to address the concerns consumers have about food safety before a recall happens to their brand.
"Consumers are fickle," said Christina McGlone, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, explaining that not all recalls resonate the same way with consumers.
The spinach recall in 2006 had a lasting impact not only on sales of spinach, but also other types of bagged salad greens. But other recalls pass by without any measurable impact.
The recall of more than 550 million eggslinked to farms in the Midwest appears to be getting a lot of attention, and could spill over to other categories. Already, Russia—which recently returned to accepting U.S. poultry after banning the imports for some time—is saying that the egg recall could be a new obstacle to future U.S. poultry meat exports to Russia. (This despite the fact that eggs and poultry meat are intentionally not produced on the same farms so as to prevent cross-contamination.)
A recall of Tyson lunch meat, announced Tuesday, appears to be limited only to roast beef and hamthat was sold in Wal-Mart delicatessens nationwide on sandwiches. The meat, suspected of containing the listeria bacteria, has not been linked to any illnesses, and is thought to have already been consumed.
The amount of news coverage an event gets, as well as the length of time it takes to resolve the situation are crucial, McGlone said.
Large fruit and vegetable processors such as Dole Food have been able to use radio frequency identification technology to trace their produce not only to a specific farm, but even to a specific plot on a growing field, she said. Hopefully, such technology could help get products off the shelves quickly in the event of a recall.
Selling on Safety
Food safety measures are also important.
Paul Sauder, president of family-owned Sauder's Egg in Ephrata, Pa., has seen a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in his company's egg sales since the egg recall. Grocery stores are advertising that Sauder's eggs were not involved in the food recall and that the company takes steps to test the safety of its eggs.
Sauder's is known as a pioneer in testing eggs for salmonella. It has taken steps to test for the bacteria for about two decades, even though the procedures are expensive and reduce the company's profitability.
"It was the right thing to do, and it was the thing we had to do to ensure the safety of the product coming from our farms here in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio," Sauder said, in an interview on CNBC.
According to Sauder, when his company first began testing its eggs about 20 years ago, it detected salmonella bacteria in 30 percent of its chicken houses. Now, it sees positive results in less than one-half of one percent of the houses it operates, he said.
Salmonella often is spread by droppings from mice that live around the chicken houses. Although the chickens don't become sick, the bacteria winds up in their eggs.
Consumers cannot tell by looking at an egg whether it has been contaminated with salmonella, a bacteria that can cause fever, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and nausea. But fully cooking their eggs to at least 160 degrees will kill any traces of bacteria that may be in the eggs.
"(The egg recall) is an isolated case in the Midwest and...it is just a small percent of the eggs (produced each year) even though it sounds like a big number," Sauder said.
In addition to advertising the steps Sauder's takes to protect the quality of its eggs, the company also ships its eggs with a farm code that allows shoppers to know where their eggs came from.
Tracing Food to Farm
That's becoming a more widespread practice on the produce aisle. Companies like Dole and Driscoll's have added codes to their product labels that allow consumers to trace the product to the farm on which it was grown.
Driscoll's began adding farm codes to its labels last year and is rolling them out growing region by growing region.
"Increasingly, consumers are wanting to know where their produce is coming from," said Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing at Driscoll's.
This trend is not just being driven by food safety concerns but also by a growing interest in locally and regionally grown fruit, he said.
Driscoll's recently introduced a redesigned label for its products that highlights the close relationship it has with its network of independent growers.
The new label depicts a farmer in a field of berries, and helps emphasize the way the Driscoll brand has evolved, Ronan said. The Watsonville, Calif., company was founded in 1953 and became most known for its strawberries, but it has since expanded to sell blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.
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