Thursday, August 11, 2011


Could risk management
prevent food poisoning?


News stories across the U.S. recently told us that "an outbreak of multi-drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg that has killed one person and sickened 76 others in 26 states appears to have been traced to ground turkey products."

According to CNN, "Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation announced Wednesday an immediate voluntary recall of approximately 36 million pounds of ground turkey meat because it may be contaminated with salmonella bacteria."

CNN also noted that "Cargill's plant in Springdale, Arkansas, processed the suspect fresh and frozen ground turkey products between February 20 and August 2." The entire CNN article can be found at

FoxNews ( reported that "Meat plants are expected to pass a performance standard that allows up to 49.9 percent of tests to come back positive for salmonella. A Cargill spokesman said the Arkansas plant had passed all USDA performance standards despite what he called "routine" findings of salmonella Heidelberg"

It quoted Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's top food-safety official, as saying "We have constraints when it comes to salmonella." She said that "unlike E. coli, salmonella isn't officially considered a dangerous adulterant in meat unless that meat is directly tied to an illness or death."

A check of three major kosher certifying agencies - OK, OU, and Star K - indicates that kosher inspection does not include checking products for salmonella, e coli, and other food-borne dangers.

What is a risk managers' role in all this?

A risk manager is not - or at least should not be - expected to be a food scientist who checks products before they ship. In Cargill's case, some 36 million pounds of ground turkey meat was recalled, an amount, CNN reports, equaling "the weight of more than 36 fully-loaded Boeing 747 commercial airplanes."

But the tainted turkey is a risk.

A risk to the consumer. Remember, one died and 76 others were sickened.

A risk to the corporate bottom line; recalling "some 36 million pounds of ground turkey" has to be expensive; plus the original cost of the raw product and processing expenses. Beyond that, the processing facility will have to be thoroughly decontaminated. Finally, Cargill faces legal action from the deceased's kin and the sickened consumers.

A risk to the corporate image; like Chinese products, Cargill products may well be suspect for some time to come.

It also turns out to be a risk for the FDA.

I'm told that the FDA is a bit "gun sky" on ordering recalls and closing plants since when it tried to do this with a Texas producer a federal appeals court blocked the move.

Still, the FDA has to be embarrassed by the incident and it knows Congress will react.

Risk managers could have recommended to Cargill that it engage its own inspectors along the production line to check for contamination of any type. Moreover, the FDA's 49.9% approval rate must be declared unacceptable and substituted with at least a 99.999% contamination-free product. I'm not suggesting a 100% inspection, but given the inherent problems with raw meats and the current embarrassment, a high sampling rate seems in order.

Since the salmonella-infected meat was detected by the federal National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) during an inspection of retail outlets, Cargill might be wise to send its own inspectors into the field to randomly check its products.

Insurance probably will cover a good portion of Cargill's recall loses, but insurance cannot cover Cargill's loss of reputation and loss of consumer confidence. Also, when insurance pays out, it recovers the payout by charging higher premiums for years to come - while Cargill probably will get insurance dollars, it will pay them back to the insurers over the coming years.

The bottom line for Cargill is simple: is it more economical to take a financial and reputational hit or is the profit in better hands if risk management is put into place.

It seems to me that implementing risk management as suggested above would, besides assuring a safer product, substantially enhance the company's image, an image badly in need of attention.

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