Thousands of frozen berries recalled over Hepatitis A scare: How to deal with product recalls

Tens of thousands of packets of Creative Gourmet brand frozen berries have been recalled over fears the product could contain strains of Hepatitis A.

The product recall was initiated on Friday, with consumers advised to return the product and seek medical advice if concerned about their health. The Creative Gourmet brand, which is produced by Entyce Food Ingredients, is sold at IGA, Foodworks, Foodland, SPAR, Supabarn and other various independent retailers, and 45,000 packets of the berries could be affected, reports Fairfax.

The recall was issued after the Victorian Department of Health found a “potential link” between the Creative Gourmet berries and a recent Hepatitis A outbreak in Victoria. Packets thought to be affected have a best before date of January 15, 2021.

This is not the first time some of the brand’s products have been recalled over issues with Hepatitis A, after three cases of Hepatitis A in 2015 were linked to the Creative Gourmet and Nanna’s frozen berries brands. The products were owned by Patties Foods at the time, and have since been sold to Entyce Foods.

In a statement to SmartCompany, a spokesperson for Entyce said the recalled batch was “relatively small” and though initial tests for Hepatitis A from the Victorian Department of Health were inconclusive, secondary testing showed the batch was clear.

“The health and safety of our consumers is of paramount importance. Recognising any concern that may exist in the community, Entyce Food Ingredients is exercising abundant caution by activating this voluntary recall immediately,” the spokesperson said.

“The recall affects less than one percent of the Creative Gourmet fruit sold annually in Australia. No other batches of Creative Gourmet products are affected.”

The product recall from 2015 involved berries sourced from China and Chile. Since acquiring the brand from Patties Foods, Entyce tells SmartCompany it was looking to phase out Chinese-sourced berries.

“We have committed to phasing out the purchasing of berries from China for our Creative Gourmet brand, recognising a level of concern that exists in the community,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“When we took over the Creative Gourmet brand, over 95 percent of the fruit was sourced from China; we have brought this figure down to five percent. With a number of sourcing contracts expected to cease shortly, 100 per cent of all fruit used in the Creative Gourmet brand will be sourced from Canada, Chile, Brazil and Vietnam.”

Put a plan in place for product recalls

For SMEs, a product recall can seem an overwhelming and daunting task. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) outlines a series of steps businesses can work through in the event they need to complete a product recall, and advises SMEs should read these before commencing any recall action.

“Suppliers voluntarily recalling products for safety–related reasons [should] notify in writing the Commonwealth Minister responsible for consumer affairs within two days of initiating the recall,” the ACCC outlines in its guidelines.

“The notice must state that the goods are subject to a recall and set out the nature of the defect in, or dangerous characteristic of, the goods.”

Suppliers are also required to give written notice “as soon as practicable” to any person outside of Australia to whom they supplied the affected goods.

Commercial law partner with TressCox lawyers Alistair Little advises businesses to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to product recalls and take action as quickly and as comprehensively as possible. He notes that potential costs for completing this process in the incorrect way could be significant.

“If you do not recall the product fully the first time around, you can be liable for substantial costs in having to redo the recall,” Little says.

“The costs of conducting a voluntary recall, and they can be substantial, are likely to be much less than the costs of having to comply with a mandatory recall imposed by the ACCC and much less than the costs of defending a class action by injured consumers.”

The ACCC also advises businesses to have a pre-planned product recall strategy which is to be submitted to the regulator, which notes suppliers have “prime responsibility for implementing a recall”.

A strong recall strategy should include an explanation of the problem with the product, an in-depth assessment of how the problem occurred, the number of affected units of the product, detail about the product’s life cycle, and information around how the product will be retrieved.

A number of other requirements are outlined in the ACCC’s explanatory document.

Communicate the issue quickly to customers

One of the key recall requirements is providing details of how the product recall will be relayed to customers, including the “method of communication, how frequently it will be repeated and details of the message”.

Part of this communication plan includes minimum requirements for online or print alerts about the product recall, including a picture of the product, contact details, and a description of the defect.

However, businesses should also try to alert customers and stakeholders through all available channels, with InsideOut PR director Nicole Reaney telling SmartCompany businesses should “take immediate steps to contain the situation”.

“Identify all relevant stakeholders relevant to your brand, develop your key message and deliver your messages to the public, government, media and consumer groups swiftly,” she says.

The statements should be direct and to the point, with Reaney warning against sugar-coating or “glossing over” issues that could pose serious medical concerns.

“Brands should definitely avoid glossing over a serious medical concern surrounding your product, even if you firmly believe a ‘scare’ is unwarranted,” she says.

“It’s always best to be on the front-foot – take the necessary precautions and communicate empathetically and factually around the situation.”

If businesses nail this approach, Reaney believes consumers are likely to be sympathetic, and that a well-executed communications strategy can even strengthen brands in consumer’s eyes.

“It may be surprising to companies that when an issue is handled transparently, compassionately and professionally [the business] can actually gain an even stronger consumer following,” Reaney says.

“Word of mouth generated in these situations can spiral out of control, however it is possible to convert the sentiment positively.”

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