Recalls. A word that sparks fear and agony in the mind of a school nutrition professional. When you hear of a new recall announced, you immediately ask yourself (in a semi-panicky manner), “Does this affect my program?” “Did some of my schools serve the recall product?” “Have there been any reported illness outbreaks?” “Where do I start with the ‘damage control’ and notification processes?”
Any seasoned veteran in our industry knows that recalls, no matter how much we fear them, are a part of running a school nutrition program. It is how you respond to the inevitable recalls that truly defines your operation!

Every Nutrition Program Deals With Recalls

Recalls can be necessary because the item creates a biological health hazard, a physical health hazard, or has an undeclared allergen in it. All types of recalls are important to take seriously, but in the school nutrition industry, recalls for undeclared allergens can be particularly serious. One in 13 children have a food allergy, not all of which are known allergies. If a product states that it does not contain peanuts, yet that product is suddenly recalled because it could have been cross contaminated during production from peanuts in the distribution facility, this could present a very serious health emergency for some children.

Recall is Announced – Now What?

The first thing you want to do when discovering that a product that you order or currently have in your inventory has been recalled is to find and isolate that item in all its locations. If you are manually managing your inventory through physical counts and spreadsheets, this could be easier said than done. You will be trying to locate items from outdated physical count reports. In recall situations, having a solution that accurately tracks your inventory in real-time (a.k.a. perpetual inventory) can speed up the time it takes to locate the items, remove them, and notify any affected students or staff.
Regardless of how frequently your inventory is tracked however, every inventory management solution should be tracking the lot number of the item as it moves through the different processes within your system. The lot number is essential for identifying a recalled item from other non-affected items of the same description – you do not want to throw out useful/viable product. You should also be able to pull the manufacturer and distributor codes if necessary. One manufacturer may sell a certain lot of an item to 50 different vendors who then turnaround and distribute that lot to 1000 school locations. If an entire lot is recalled on a product (which is typically the case), it is unfortunately very easy for numerous nutrition programs to be affected.
Once you locate the recalled item within your system, you must figure out:

  • The amount of recalled product that was already served to students, and if the recalled item is an ingredient in any prepared meal item that has not made it to the serving line
  • Which locations currently store the product (includes school and warehouses)
  • Whether the recalled item could have been used in other outside-of-school activities, such as afterschool day care programs or evening athletic events
  • If you expect immediate deliveries of the recalled item that may not be pulled from the distributor before it reaches you

All of this information is important and necessary to collect. The state agency requires a report of how you were affected by the recall within 48 hours of notification. The state agency then aggregates this information and forwards it on to the USDA Food & Nutrition Service.

Dig a Little Deeper into Your Menu Items

Experiencing a recall on a simple item like lettuce or berries can often be the most challenging to manage. These “simple” items are often used as ingredients in numerous menu items, served very frequently at all sites. For instance, a recall on lettuce could mean you must pull your entire salad bar off line, as well as your taco salad, fresh wraps, and some sandwich combinations. A recall on berries might not seem insignificant initially, until you realize that you’ve baked those berries into muffins for the last week, as well as served them in parfaits for breakfast at the high school.
Recalls are necessary because they limit the spread of harmful bacteria that can cause illness outbreaks or injuries to children who consume that item. The organized and timely manner in which we respond to recalls can be a bright spot in an otherwise dim situation, so take the necessary steps ahead of time and make sure your district’s nutrition program is ready for whenever the next recall comes your way!
Do you have any crazy recall stories to tell? We’d love to hear them. Share below!