The logistics of handling a product recall of one-third of Britain's daily consumption of Cadbury's chocolate (about one million bars) are tricky to say the least. The food chain does not go into reverse easily, particularly where there is a middleman such as a wholesaler or cash and carry involved.
However, when public health may be at stake, everyone tries to do their duty. Once the weekend headlines ('Choc shock', 'Meltdown', 'Bug scare') had settled down the quieter, official notices started to appear. Cadbury's statement to the trade press says that the recall is a purely precautionary measure as some products may contain minute traces of salmonella. "Customers are advised to remove all product from display with immediate effect and return to their supplier for a full refund," it adds.
A spokeswoman for the company says that nearly all possibly affected product will have been off the shelves between 48-72 hours after the official recall. The recalled product, picked up by sales force and a fleet of vans, will not be tested but will go straight into landfill. The wrappers will be recycled.
However, anecdotal evidence shows that several days after the recall some retailers were not sure which products are affected, had not received any official notification from anyone and were unsure what to do with the products.
Sunil Joshi, who runs a Costcutter in North London's Manor Park, says: "I heard it on the news but I haven't been notified by letter about what sizes are involved so I don't know if I have any of the affected products here. Costcutter would normally inform us but we haven't heard yet."
He had taken the precaution of removing Cadbury products from his shelves, not realising until Convenience Store ran through the list with him, that actually he had no affected product in the store - which many of the smaller retailers would have discovered as most of the chocolate bar sizes involved are quite large.
The point about him removing all product was a pertinent one, though. The tabloids had done their usual scaremongering best over the weekend, the rumour machine had kicked in and mud sticks.
As Jas Parmar, a Londis retailer in Bedford, observes: "I only had a few Freddo bars left so I binned them, but I'm finding that the customers are not touching any of the other Cadbury brands either because they only remember the headlines. It's good to have a strong brand, but the downside is that you are only as good as your reputation. Some people have asked me why they waited so long before telling the authorities? Were they waiting to get Easter out of the way?"
Jas, like a lot of retailers, has been involved in product recalls in the past. "Londis is very good at recall and so are the cash and carries, but it's a pain involving credit notes. The return of product is a slow coach because there is a cost involved, whereas the sale of product is swift and smooth because there is a profit attached."
Booker sales director Warren Thomson says the cash and carry chain acted swiftly. "Posters with the full list of products affected have been displayed at every branch. We have also written to all of our Premier and Retail Club customers, advising them to return these products to Booker."
The seven products possibly contaminated with salmonella montevideo are:
Cadbury Dairy Milk Turkish 250g
Cadbury Dairy Milk Caramel 250g
Cadbury Dairy Milk Mint 250g
Cadbury Dairy Milk 8 chunk
Cadbury Dairy Milk 1kg
Cadbury Dairy Milk Button Easter Egg 105g
Cadbury Freddo 10p
It is tempting, at times like these, to try to draw parallels between the current Cadbury case and the last great scare, the discovery in February 2005 of the banned food dye Sudan 1, which is implicated in an increased risk of cancer. It was found in a batch of chilli powder used by Premier Foods to manufacture a Worcestershire sauce. This was then added as an ingredient to a wide range of products. But as ACS' public affairs director James Lowman points out, that was a very different story.
"We weren't sure what products were involved as Sudan 1 was an illegal ingredient used in numerous ready meal recipes, both in branded and own branded products, and sold in many convenience stores. In the case of Cadbury it is quite simple. There is a specific factory involved and a readily identified brand complete with sizes."
He adds: "We felt quite exposed by the Sudan 1 experience. It was not easy to get information out quickly to retailers and, frankly, the real issue then was with the press. There is always going to be a reporter who writes: 'I went into a corner shop/c-store and found these products lurking on the shelves'. And of course once a product has been recalled it is illegal for a retailer to sell it, although we have never heard of retailers being prosecuted. Unless it is a deliberate or a malicious act then the retailer would just be ordered to remove the product."
The Food Standards Agency admits that it doesn't wait until it has the full picture before issuing warnings. As the picture becomes clearer, as in Sudan 1 with more than 500 products identified, it just updates its message as it believes that the message is all-important.
At the same time as the Cadbury recall, Unilever recalled selected packs of Flora Original Spread 1kg due to an undesirable flavour in the product, described as burnt or metallic. Notices appeared in the national press on June 22. The product is lot code L611400J119 with best before dates of 02.09.0 06:00 through to 02.09.06 08:00.
It went almost unnoticed in all the chocolate furore.
The Food Standards Authority has the following advice when food products are 'withdrawn' (taken off the shelves) or 'recalled' (when customers are asked to return a product):
? Make sure you know which products and which batches are affected
? Remove all affected products and label them 'not for sale' to prevent staff accidentally putting them back on shelf
? Some product recalls require you to put a notice up in your shop telling customers that the product is being recalled and why. Sometimes you may need to put up your own notice
? If you are unsure about any of the above, call your local authority for advice.
As far as the hard-to-reach independent is concerned, product recall is rather like a pyramid. At the top would be, in the most current case, Cadbury setting in motion the withdrawal process via a media alert and reporting the move to the Food Standards Agency, whose role it is to then inform the local authorities.
Environmental health officers have then to ensure products are removed from sale. Cadbury would also inform its big accounts. The media, symbol group head offices and cash and carries and trade associations must then take the message to that place that others cannot seem to reach: the independent retailer. Then it is up to you to act. Take it back to where you got it. You will get a full refund.
A tight net
The information network at times like this is pretty impressive. Every national newspaper, TV and radio station publishes regular updates; the trade press carries retailer-specific advice; cash and carries put up (in this case Cadbury-supplied) posters in English and Gujarati; symbol head offices contact members and some environmental health officers from local authorities write to stores on their patch. For example, Bedford Borough Council sent out 260 letters to small independents within a couple of days of the news breaking on this occasion.
There are also many website links. You can find them on the sites of the Association of Convenience Stores; the Rural Shops Alliance; Garagewatch; consumer magazine Which? and, of course, the Food Standards Agency. And, finally, for any retailer experiencing difficulties, there is a Cadbury helpline on 08701 917343.