In my last post regarding a recent recall of cantaloupes in the upper midwest due to Salmonella contamination, you can tell that I was struck by the sequence of events being reported.  Melon Acres’ recall notice went up on August 27; the FDA reported the Salmonella-positive test result on which the recall was based on August 21, a full six days before Melon Acres’ recall notice; and the FDA’s salmonella-positive test actually occurred on August 11.  Problem is, the melons were shipped to grocery stores, and maybe into consumers homes, on August 13 or 14.

We don’t know all the details yet, but I’m not sure how many ways there are to spin this.  The bottom line appears to be that the Salmonella positive test result occurred more than two weeks before Melon Acres issued its recall notice, by which point the cantaloupes had certainly been distributed . . . and very likely sold to consumers. 

When seeing this, my immediate thought was, "what’s the shelf life for cantaloupes after harvest" Pragmatism dictates that we at least look at whether the delays were justified, or not as big a deal as they appear to be at first blush.  I googled it and found an answer that, although a bit dependant on ripeness at harvest and other factors, the shelf life is not long enough to explain away a more than two week delay in recalling affected product.  Ripe cantaloupes should be consumed in not more than a few days.  Thus, there is much more than a theoretical risk that contaminated product will be consumed, particularly considering that these melons were distributed on August 13 or 14. 

Maybe nobody will get sick from these bad melons.  No way to tell yet because, if people did get sick, the epidemiological data is certainly not in the public domain yet.  But this episode is nonetheless distressing.  If a company’s motivation for delaying recalls boils down to dollars and cents, they should take a lesson from companies, in fact entire industries, who have recently felt the economic impact of massive product recalls (PCA peanut recall cost the industry 1.5 billion dollars).  

Companies faced with a potential recall situation should consider this:  What really generates the damage are illnesses caused, not whether a notice goes up on the FDA website.  The reason is that illnesses, not simply recall notices, are what drive the sometimes frenetic media response.  

The media attention and other buzz that affects the bottom line will be much less significant if there are no illnesses, and I assure you that the best way to avoid making people sick, assuming that you know your product is contaminated, is to take it off of store shelves if you’ve got the chance.  Indeed, the only way for a food seller to protect its consumers is know the risks, and effectively communicate those risks to the public.