GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- When the call came -- in this case, recall -- Gordon Food Service was ready.
The wholesaler/retailer based here had to activate its recall playbook recently after some of its private-label deli meat products were named as part of the massive nationwide callback of items manufactured by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Sara Lee.
The company's recall plan -- highly organized, customer-intensive and technology-assisted -- followed guidelines established by GFS' quality assurance team with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies. Company officials said the basic plan is constantly being updated as they learn to be more efficient with each recall experienced.
GFS organized the special team as a part of their quality assurance program, taking the extra precaution due to the industry's great potential for recalls. Scott Berman, product marketing manager for GFS, said the company treats each case with equal seriousness, but that this Listeria callback is one of the largest they have encountered.
GFS's recall action team is comprised of senior managers and quality control staff who have prepared for these types of situations by familiarizing themselves with the original guidelines, as well as past cases of product withdrawals. Additionally, the team is directed by the head of their on-premise USDA-certified laboratory, quality assurance manager Jeff Howard. The certified lab is yet another precautionary measure taken by GFS. Products are randomly checked on-site to verify the customer is receiving the same quality listed on the label.
"These two important qualities help us to stand out in the industry," said Berman. "Having people dedicated to these circumstances helps us to take action quickly and protect the safety of our customers."
It was Dec. 22 of last year when Gordon Food Service was notified that six of their own private-label deli meat products were part of the recall issued by Bil Mar, for possible contamination with the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. GFS immediately alerted the recall team whose first action was to have their information systems department call up the list of customers who were potentially affected and print the list in the form of mailing labels -- an efficient tactic they organized following a previous recall.
"We received notice of the recall on Dec. 22," said Berman. "On Dec. 23, all products carrying the establishment numbers in question were removed from the shelves and letters were sent to customers who could potentially be affected."
According to Berman, GFS used front-end data capture and invoice reviews to determine the identities of anyone who had purchased the recalled products.
On the retail side, GFS located individuals who bought the potentially contaminated items through the use of their customer discount cards, which recorded the purchase.
As a result, approximately 14,000 letters were mailed to both commercial and non-commercial customers, urging them to return the meat products to a GFS Marketplace retail location for a full refund.
In addition, GFS set up a special 800-number for consumers with questions regarding the revoked items. The hot line is monitored 24-hours a day and customers are guaranteed a response, which Berman said they try to provide as soon as possible.
The company assures all calls taken before 9 p.m. will receive a reply the same day and calls placed after 9 p.m. will hear back the following day. On average, Berman said, calls are returned within the hour.
"The vast majority of calls are actually not related to our private-label products," Berman continued. "They are general calls about the contamination or about other questionable products. We try to help all callers as best we can."
He also said other companies, such as Bil Mar/Sara Lee, have set up informational 800-numbers as well and they keep these numbers on-hand to better help callers get the assistance they need.
Berman said their main goal is to keep the consumer safe and informed.
To further protect their customers, GFS issued a complete media alert on Jan. 24, 1999, which restated the six GFS products which were recalled and updated the public as to what measures GFS had taken to control the situation.
"[This] is an additional effort to ensure that all consumers who may have visited our stores are well-informed," said GFS company spokesperson, Dave Vickery. "We want to be sure that we have taken every possible precaution to protect consumers."
Established in 1897, GFS is a regional food-service distributor which operates 70 Marketplace retail stores in the Midwest.