US government releases draft of new guidelines for responding to customer complaints
In response to an increase in meat and poultry recalls caused by adulterated and misbranded products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recently published best practices guidelines for how manufacturers can respond to consumer complaints associated with these issues. The guidelines are currently up for comment through 10 May 2019, after which they will be updated (if necessary).
Automation Brings new Risks
This increase in recalls is, in part, being linked to an increase in automation in meat processing plants. Essentially, adding more machinery to the process gives more chances for machines parts to break off and contaminate food. Apart from stepping up inspection efforts – or increasing the frequency of part replacement – the best course of action for manufacturers to do is to respond quickly to customer complaints. The nature of the response depends on the nature of the complaint – it may not necessarily be enough of a concern to trigger a product recall, or it may not be a real complaint to begin with.
Some Claims are False
Every consumer complaint that comes into a given manufacturer needs to be investigated. Companies should have a mechanism for review of complaints to aid in prioritizing those that impact consumer safety. Sometimes, the result of this investigation is that the complaint is clearly false: the alleged contamination is simply not possible, or involves an object or material that is not present in the production facility. The problem that arises, however, is that the time spent investigating a claim that turns out to be legitimate means contaminated products stay out in the marketplace for longer.
The new guidelines are concerned with the process of investigation and conducting a recall, when necessary. In short, the USDA urges a faster turnaround time on investigations of consumer complaints – suggesting that investigations begin immediately upon receipt of a consumer complaint. In addition, manufacturers should notify the USDA within 24 hours of verifying a complaint in order to minimize the time contaminated products spend on shelves.
Keeping on Top of Food Safety
There are a few things to consider in light of this new guidance: first, the guidance is basically reiterating best practices that manufacturers have already been doing. Second, automation is still the best way to reduce the occurrence of product recalls – particularly when it comes to product inspection. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely eliminate product recalls, but they can still be reduced. Finally, it is important to keep on top of the latest regulations and inspection technology – and to work with experts who do the same.