Free markets thrive on trust. It’s imperative that consumers trust the brands they choose to do business with. This is especially true when it comes to food manufacturers, who hold customers’ health and wellbeing in their hands.
No company is perfect, however, and occasionally something happens to remind us of that fact. If we’re lucky, we get a second chance to evaluate our company policies and formulate a plan to make sure the same mistake never happens twice.
In early 2021, Randall Beans was shocked to learn of some issues happening on our factory floor. These issues eventually led to the voluntary recall and temporary shutdown of our factory while we fixed the problems.
In the interest of transparency, we’d like to share all the details of that incident and explain how we handled it—and what we are going to do better and differently in the future.
In case you haven’t heard, here’s what happened:
The beginning of 2021 was an intense time for many businesses. The pandemic was in full swing, and people were buying non-perishable food and supplies faster than the struggling supply chain could replenish them. As a company that sells beans that should last on shelves for a long time, we were no exception.
It was admittedly a chaotic time. With products flying off the shelves and a new plant manager we were bringing up to speed, our plates were full every day.
To add some additional background context, the process of jarring beans demands nothing short of perfect precision. These strict protocols are in place to prevent jarred foods from spoiling prematurely and inhibit the growth of botulism and other microorganisms that could make our consumers ill. To give an idea of the precise care required to make every batch, here are some of the rules we stick to:
- At least 3% air must be left at the top of the jar to maintain a healthy aerobic environment.
- Each jar must contain an exact ratio of bean solids to brine liquids.
- The whole batch must be heated and maintained at 262 degrees for a precise duration of time.
- Every temperature and pressure probe must take continuous and accurate readings to keep each batch stable.
- Anything short of these precise measurements constitutes a deviation from the accepted guidelines set down by testing authorities. One weak link in the chain can bring down the whole operation.
So, when our new plant manager noticed the temperature probes were approaching their recalibration date—and that one was beginning to malfunction—we ordered new parts immediately. Even though there is a backup probe in every batch, even one malfunctioning probe is an unacceptable risk.
Unfortunately, due to the supply chain issues, what would normally be a one-week shipment was estimated to take 16 weeks.
When the FDA made a regular visit to make sure everything was in order, they noticed the same issues we had noticed. We provided them with proof that our equipment had been ordered, and explained that the shipment was taking far longer than expected.
The FDA agent understood, and that might have been the end of it. Unfortunately, there was another problem that we were unaware of.
The previous plant manager had been let go because he claimed he had taken care of the calibration earlier, when he actually hadn’t. Evidently, to cover for this false claim, he instructed a worker to falsify temperature readings. When the FDA pointed out some falsely recorded readings to us, we were horrified. We were not only shocked that it had happened in the first place, we were exceptionally disappointed that we hadn’t noticed the discrepancies before.
Because of the precision of our process and the extensive backup systems in place, it’s likely that all the food we had shipped, even with these obvious problems, was perfectly safe. And luckily, not a single person got sick as a result of our beans.
However, that wasn’t enough for us. We knew we had to go out of our way to make everything right.
How we handled it:
The FDA provided the option to recall only beans from the affected batches made after January 1, 2021. However, out of an abundance of caution and the necessity to get the word out as quickly as possible, we decided to issue a recall of all products, not just the affected batches of beans. (One factor driving this decision is that we didn’t want to force our retailers to have to look at the label on every jar to determine which ones were affected and which ones were not.) Moreover, we immediately shut down our plant and kept it shut down until all issues were corrected.
This total recall cost us a significant amount of time and money, as you can imagine, but we believe it also allowed retailers to get the affected products off the shelves much faster. It absolutely ensured that no products remained which might have been a problem. It was a painful decision, but we knew it was the right thing to do.
Needless to say, the terminated plant manager is still terminated.
With hard work and diligence, we were able to fix our problems in record time. By July 7th, just six weeks after the FDA’s initial visit on May 17th, we had calibrated and updated the necessary equipment, instituted new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure that such an incident did not happen again, and put all employees through a multi-day training program to ensure that everyone was aware of our new SOPs. We passed our secondary inspection with flying colors.
Make no mistake, however, we understand that this recall is a lasting black mark. In an interview given to the Detroit Free Press after the incident, we made it clear that we were disgusted with ourselves for this oversight.
To make sure nothing like this ever happens again, our new plant manager, Ben, and one of our owners, Scott, both attended thermal processing school and graduated with certificates in safe thermal processing techniques. They are up to speed (and can train new employees) on subjects such as:
- Cooking and canning regulations
- Regulations on the water used during the canning process
- Regulations for the disposal of the water back into the environment
- And other government guidelines
With this new knowledge—and awareness gained from the experience of what can go wrong—we are determined to make sure that this recall experience makes us a better company.
What we learned:
Here is a summary of the lessons we learned from this experience:
- When it comes to manufacturing food, managers can never assume that “everything is fine.” We now make sure we are always constantly checking, questioning, and testing, even if everything seems to be fine.
- While doing the right thing can be incredibly painful and expensive, it’s still the right thing. We knew this already, but doing this just confirmed for us that there is no other option. We had to do the right thing, learn from it, and keep going.
- Randall Foods has been in business since the late 1800s. But a stellar history has to be maintained, every single day, in the plant. One small oversight or poor decision by one individual can be enough to stop the factory.
- The best way to rebuild that reputation is to squarely face what went wrong, fix systems and processes so it never happens again, and look for wider lessons. What we have learned has been applied throughout everything we do.
- Because we were completely transparent about this mistake, we found that our distributors, brokers, buyers, retailers, and customers stayed with us and helped us, and are happy to continue doing business with us.