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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2006

The DNA of Crisis Management

Using Food Forensics in Recall Investigations

by Melanie Gilbert

Television shows highlighting the techniques and intricacies utilized in criminal investigations are gaining a foothold among America’s television viewers.

Popular shows such as Law & Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, command a significant following. Each show offers a captivating crime in the opening minutes to gain your attention, followed by devoting the majority of time to the myriad tactics, tests, and techniques used to determine “whodunit.”

You may wonder what these shows and crisis management have in common. Answer: Both may be positioned to utilize the latest forensic advancements to “solve” their mystery. Most of us wish that our real-world crises could be successfully resolved within 60 minutes as is each CSI episode. Alas, in the world of product recalls, investigation and resolution tend to take much longer. Yet, the food industry may benefit from watching an episode or two of a popular criminal investigation show to appreciate the benefits that forensics brings to investigating and solving an apparent crisis.

This article provides insight into various causes of a crisis, and offers some examples of how cutting edge developments in food forensics may greatly assist you in successfully managing your company’s crisis.

What Constitutes a Crisis?

If you are in the food business, you face the potential for a food-related crisis, such as a recall, at any time. This reality is difficult to ignore when food-related product recalls are communicated almost daily through press releases issued by the recalling companies or the governing regulatory agency. In your day-to-day operations, you may become aware of a suspect product prompting the need for a recall from a variety of sources. Suppliers, consumers, distributors, or state or federal regulatory agencies all may report knowledge of a potential issue.

Typically, contamination of some sort is the most prevalent cause of a potential recall. Such contamination may involve a foodborne illness. Types of contamination include:

  • Physical (glass, metal, plastic, wood, stones)
  • Microbiological (bacteria, bacterial and fungal toxins)
  • Chemical (undeclared allergens, pesticides, solvents, poisons, cleaning materials)

Other triggers of a potential recall include mislabeling (not involving undeclared allergens) and economic fraud.

If it appears you may have a potential recall on your hands, timing is of the essence in conducting a thorough, detailed investigation to determine how the contamination may have occurred. Generally, there are three major ways in which a foreign object or other contaminant could enter a product, whether accidental or willful. They are:

  • During manufacturing (from raw materials, storage, manufacturing mishandling, employee tampering)
  • During distribution (from improper storage, tampering with the product and returning it to the store shelf for later purchase)
  • After purchase1 (improper storage by store [e.g. temperature in freezer case set too low]; false claims where consumers tampered with the product)

The key to your company’s ability to successfully mitigate risk associated with alleged contamination claims may lie in credibly determining that your company was not the source of the contamination. Where do you turn to obtain such evidence? Your internal food scientists may be able to perform sufficient tests to determine the source of the contaminant. However, in high exposure situations, such as litigated cases, you may desire a third-party, accredited laboratory to substantiate your results in order to provide the best possible position for your company. Some third party laboratories have significantly enhanced testing techniques to offer clients innovative, cutting edge methodologies that would rival those employed in the best of criminal investigation shows.

Advantages of Forensic Testing

Food forensics utilizes many of the same scientific methodologies used in other forensic disciplines, such as those applied in criminal investigations. Food forensics may benefit the industry most greatly in the area of root cause determination.

There are some important questions to ponder: How do you currently perform your root cause analysis? Do you rely only on internal data such as the production schedules and plant line reports (e.g. to confirm there wasn’t a glass breakage event when handling a glass foreign object complaint?) and arrive at your best approximation of the cause? Do you sometimes feel like that determination is based more on an educated hunch than scientific evidence? Would you prefer to have more concrete information that better substantiates the merits of an alleged consumer complaint?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your company may benefit from familiarizing itself with and utilizing the most recent, innovative forensic resources to support its investigation and resolution of alleged contamination claims.

For those in the food industry, determining the merits of an alleged claim is oftentimes more of an art than a science. But engaging the skills of a credible laboratory that performs myriad forensic analyses may significantly improve your ability to determine the identity and source of the contamination, how it entered the product, at what point in the distribution cycle and, possibly most importantly, by whom.

If your company faces the potential of a major recall, your goal is to leave no stoned unturned in determining the root cause of the alleged issue. If you are facing a foreign object claim, for example, your mission is to determine how it could have entered the product. Testing and analysis performed by an independent national laboratory brings legitimacy to your investigative findings. By using certain innovative forensic testing technologies employed by many laboratories, you may be able to confirm through credible, industry accepted testing methodology that the foreign object was introduced by the consumer complainant, not your company. These results serve as primary evidence in your defense to the claim, thereby potentially shielding your company from liability and protecting your brand and company’s valuable reputation.

So, what’s the takeaway? In addition to having a well-written recall plan with clearly defined roles and responsibilities and standard operating procedures to follow in the event of a recall, use of forensic testing may be one of your best crisis management tactics and most conclusive defenses against product contamination claims. But a word of caution: the converse may also hold true—forensic testing may produce results unfavorable to your position in confirming that the contaminant was indeed introduced under your watch. Therefore, you need to be prepared to handle this possibility from a communication and brand protection crisis management perspective. Your cross-functional recall decision team should include a representative from media relations and the affected brand in order to be properly prepared to address the potential ramifications of a product recall.

Laboratories Offering Forensic Testing

Many laboratories offer clients a variety of forensic food testing methods. However, in order to differentiate between the numerous offerings of testing labs and select one that aligns with your high quality standards and meets your particular testing needs, careful due diligence is necessary. Of primary importance is determining whether the laboratory is ISO 17025 accredited. The April/May edition of Food Quality contains an excellent checklist, which expounds upon the ISO 17025 accreditation standards and provides additional helpful tips to consider when making your selection.

As for resources and laboratories who may offer the forensic testing services you are seeking, the following list provides a few of several that offer such services:

  1. FDA Forensic Center, established in 1989, the center provides a team of forensic scientists who can provide forensic testing services and advice to FDA officials. Although this agency does not do contract work for individual companies, you should be aware that FDA possesses and utilizes such expertise (
  2. Food Processors Association’s (FPA) Center for Technical and Laboratory Services (CTLS) offers forensics services to its membership (
  3. The Institute for Environmental Health, Inc. (IEH) offers a variety of forensic investigation tools such as DNA-based methods to detect sources of contamination. For example, IEH is developing an expertise in genotyping E. coli in order to identify and track it through the supply chain system.2
  4. The McCrone Research Institute utilizes state-of-the-art forensic microscopy testing (


If you are faced with a product recall, and determining your root cause of the contamination presents itself as the potential key in solving your mystery, consider utilizing forensic testing as a resource in your investigation.


  1. FDA Forensic Center
  2. www. ‘Genetic Fingerprinting and Forensic Investigation

Melanie Gilbert is RQA, Inc.’s vice president of crisis management and general counsel. She can be reached at 630-512-0011 or



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