Listeriosis Crisis Management – How Reverse Logistics Is The Answer To A Retailers’ Biggest Nightmare

South Africa is currently facing a widespread outbreak of a food borne disease known as listeria. The source of this epidemic was finally confirmed by Health Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi this past Sunday (March 4th) and was cited to be Enterprise’s food production plant in Polokwane, Limpopo.

Listeriosis is food poisoning caused by consuming foods contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium. It can be found in soil and water and that includes the following sources:

  • Animals as they can carry the bacteria and can contaminate meats and dairy products.
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk or foods made from unpasteurized milk.
  • Vegetables which can be tainted by the soil or from the manure that is used as fertilizer.
  • Processed foods such as soft cheese and cold cuts.

Listeriosis affects mainly newborns, the elderly, pregnant women and adults with impaired immune systems. The present outbreak in the country has been documented as the world’s biggest Listeriosis epidemic to date, with 948 confirmed cases and 180 deaths, thus far.

This of course has caused waves of panic in several communities and has sent the economy into a tailspin of chaos with retailers attempting to redress the damages caused by the infestation.

The African National Congress (ANC) has called an investigation into the quality of the packaging used in products linked with listeriosis and have urged food production warehouses to ensure that the standard of packaging is not of inferior quality in attempts to save production costs at the expense of consumers’ lives. It has also welcomed the recall of products that have been implicated, including polony, viennas, sausages, russians and other several “ready to eat” cold meats. Major retailers such as Woolworths and Pick n’ Pay have since immediately recalled such products and have promised to fully refund customers.

This is a given nightmare for any retailer as it means dealing with returned freight and the possible loss of capital and time. However, taking immediate action and implementing crisis management plans into place will assist in mitigating any crisis. The questions to ask yourself are – what are the best methods of preparing for a recall event? Is it possible to minimize risk and potential liability?

Risk Management

A food recall takes place when any corrective action is taken by a company to protect consumers from contaminated products, as we are seeing now with Woolworths and Pick n’ Pay. Risk Management begins when there are strategic plans put in place to develop best practices and quality control checkpoints throughout the manufacturing process. This assists in reducing liability too as having liability insurance can do everything but protect you from the expense of product retrieval and losing consumer trust. So in this case, prevention really becomes better than cure.

Besides making certain that there are regulatory food safety requirements, any company in the supply chain industry should always ensure that there are internal safety policies as well. The primary goals of developing a recall policy should be established in order to comply with existing government regulations, rebuild brand reputation with the public, minimize recall costs and protect consumer health.

An organization that got tangled up in a listeriosis crisis, much like Tiger Brands, was Maple Leaf Foods, a major Canadian consumer packaged meats company. The business suffered a significant loss due to contamination at its Toronto facility. It took approximately two months for Maple Leaf to alert distributors to halt all shipping after discovering the infection. It also took them another additional two weeks to have a nationwide recall of their products that was later extended to 223 product lines from just three deli meats. The company suffered over a billion rand in damages and were responsible for twenty deaths.

The listeria bacteria were discovered inside Maple Leaf Foods’ two automated slicing machines after they were dismantled for thorough testing. Although their machines were sanitized daily, the bacterium was found to be growing inside the part of equipment beyond sanitization process reach. This reveals how manufacturers need to establish continual process improvements that will be able to identify potential food safety risks. They also must develop cooperative and communicative relationships with vendors and suppliers so to have a knowledge base for food safety and mutual profitability. Maple Leaf Foods’ shortcomings were delaying confirming suspicion and failing to track contaminated foods that had already been distributed. Such failure to manage their crisis led to a massive loss.


Inventory Management and Recalls

Crisis management plans should be implemented immediately in the event of a product recall. Distributors and suppliers should be contacted as soon as possible to stop shipments, with a system in place that will assist in identifying the location of the products. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging is said to be the most effective technology that can achieve this and provide efficient and accurate data. Having a controlled inventory process can limit exposure and accelerate the recall process. A manufacturing plant has an opportunity to identify critical information such as the food supplier, date the shipment was received, and all other important factors like the temperature that will reduce the chance of having contamination. As food travels from the original source throughout the manufacturing process and distribution chain, there are numerous opportunities of it getting contaminated at any point and that’s why it’s important to use RFID to catalogue the history of the products.


Product Recall Training

Product recall training is a significant part of recalling. By teaching the staff on their roles and responsibilities throughout the organization, and selecting a recall team, you make it easy for them to be able to manage recall efforts they are responsible for. Conduct a mock recall training that will provide the grounds to test recall plans, the inventory tracking system, communication logs along with several processes. A mock recall can help reveal deficiencies in the plans and point out ways of improving recall strategies.


The Importance Of Documenting

Documenting a recall plan is important in launching commitment and adoption of the agreed processes and procedures to alleviate risk and initiate a recall claim. It should include the processes of the quality of the goods received, the manufacturing process identifying procedures for quality control testing at critical checkpoints, how complaints are handled, and what to do in the event of a recall.

This factor identifies individuals in a recall team, along with their roles and responsibilities – clarity that will eliminate delays and confusion while reacting to a recall event.

Recording consumer complaints is also important in the process of recalling because it controls potential losses, uses information to improve processes or uncover critical facts and limits risk an exposure to customers.

Every recall plan needs a detailed step-to-step explanation that reveals what should be done when a product needs to be recalled. Having a communication log identifying all contacts with suppliers, vendors, and other stakeholders will be critical for any government investigations, consumer law suits, and will give the business vital data that can assist in continual process improvement initiatives.


Jennifer Bilodeau, a Reverse Logistics specialist, emphasized and concluded the importance of planning and having quality control checkpoints by stating “A well designed and documented food recall plan must be an extension of day to day operations management. Knowing a vendor and maintaining a relationship is critical to mitigating potential risk and improving quality of product. Inventory management, tracking, and customer relationship management will assist in facilitating communications to expedite the recall of foods limiting both consumer health and financial. Testing crisis management plans and training staff on their roles and responsibilities in a food safety and product recall incident will be beneficial. Training will instil confidence and uncover deficiencies that will ensure an organization is not on acting quickly to respond to a public health incident, but to control and manage the incident limiting loss.”


While we’re on the topic of Returns Management, find out How To Profit From Outsourcing Reverse Logistics Functions!



WebMD. 2018. Listeria (Listeriosis): Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment. [ONLINE] Available at: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Listeriosis . [Accessed 06 March 2018].

Jordaan, N. 2018. ANC calls for investigation into packaging of listeriosis-linked products. [ONLINE] Available at: ANC calls for investigation into packaging of listeriosis-linked products . [Accessed 06 March 2018].

Bilodeau, J. Reverse Logistics Magazine. 2018. Reverse Logistics Talk | RL Magazine | Reverse Logistics Association. [ONLINE] Available at: Reverse Logistics Magazine . [Accessed 06 March 2018].