There's nothing like a loaf with added rat to get the tabloids going. The story, accompanied by a close-up of the offending product and the person who discovered it, will usually be a tale of copious vomiting. But while extreme cases of food contamination make great copy (why trouble the local Environmental Health department when you can go straight to the newspapers?), they are, fortunately, quite rare.
The good news is that of the 80 Food Alerts listed on the Food Standards Agency website last year (not a conclusive figure in any way) only 23 involved foreign body contamination (often glass or plastic). Of those, most involved supermarket own label products but 11 were alerts by manufacturers.
It's testament to modern procedures that this type of contamination doesn't happen more often, given the sheer scale of food manufacture in this country. The bad news is that when it does, it can reflect badly on your store, even if the problem originated elsewhere. This is why the way you handle a foreign body complaint is crucial to maintaining a good relationship with your customers and the reputation of your shop.
If the contamination involves a whole batch of a particular product, manufacturers will contact the Food Standards Agency, who will issue an alert. These are published on its website, www.food.gov.uk/enforcement/alerts, and can also be received via email and text. However, a complaint may also be a one-off case or part of a wider problem yet to be discovered by anyone else.
The first step for any retailer facing a customer complaint is to reassure them and retrieve the product. A few kind words can often diffuse a situation and persuade a customer that you'll make sure their complaint is investigated fully. A defensive or angry response from you will probably just send them straight to Environmental Health or, worse, to the local press.
Southern Co-op general manager commercial operations Phil Ponsonby says that reassuring the customer is a key element in the society's procedure for dealing with foreign body complaints. "There is a standard procedure to ensure that, first and foremost, the customer is reassured that we take the matter seriously and that they can be certain we will investigate and get back to them with our findings. At the same time, we offer a no-quibble replacement or refund."
According to Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) policy officer Steve Ramm, showing a lack of interest is contrary to food safety management requirements. "Failing to take the complaint seriously is probably the most common mistake. This often results in Environmental Health being involved unnecessarily, and the loss of customers. If the problem is due to the retailer, they should ensure the problem doesn't recur. If the problem is in the supply chain, the retailer should assist their customer in finding out who was responsible."
He says that retailers should consider offering customers a refund if appropriate. "Customers are entitled to recompense for any reasonable costs."
If the problem is serious and possibly widespread, the retailer must inform the Local Authority Environmental Health Office and co-operate in any trade withdrawal that might be necessary.
Layton Blackham Insurance brokers retail services manager Ian Hughes says it's important that retailers keep control of the situation: "They must in no way give implied acknowledgement of liability," he says (see panel above).
Jonathan Bain, Musgrave Budgens Londis technical development and regulatory affairs controller, advises its retailers: "Take details of the relevant facts of the complaint, plus the name, address and contact number and so on, plus product package details and history of the purpose. It's important to retain the foreign body in situ, although this isn't always possible as sometimes the person complaining has already separated the object or washed it off."
If this is the case, you need to ask exactly where they found the object - in the pastry, filling, topping or base? Retaining the packaging is particularly important as it will contain the packing code which helps traceability. Without this, it can be difficult to trace back - especially if the product is produced six days a week and has a seven- to 12-day shelf life. "You can have a stab and look at the till receipt, but it may only get us to a very narrow window," says Bain.
He adds that customers often misguidedly think the barcode contains key information when, in fact, it simply says what the product is.
Customers may also refuse to hand over the product, fearing that the problem will be swept under the carpet or denied. Says Bain: "We need to establish what caused the contamination - it could be a big problem and be the tip of the iceberg. Occasionally, a customer will be fairly belligerent, but if they don't allow us to examine the product it ties our hands. We can take photo of the foreign body, but it's not ideal."
Once the product has been retained, it must be stored appropriately and clearly marked as a foreign body complaint so that it will be neither misplaced nor resold. Bain says: "If it's a chilled or frozen product we recommend the retailer put it in the blast freezer marked up.
"If a small independent store is involved then the owner should contact the manufacturer immediately. Obviously, if it's in an own brand or Budgens brand they should contact us."
If the retailer has liability insurance then it's important to contact the insurance company as soon as possible.
CIEH's Ramm says: "In law, the customer's contract is with the retailer. If the retailer believes somebody else is at fault the retailer needs to take action to establish that. It is probable that the culprit organisation, either directly or through insurers, will be pleased to handle the complaint once notified. However, if they don't co-operate, legal redress for the customer is first gained via the retailer. "
Most of the larger stores and groups send a written response to the customer, admitting no liability but confirming receipt of the product and reassuring the customer that the complaint is being dealt with and that somebody will be in contact with them. Maintaining that contact throughout the investigation, which may take some weeks, is key to retaining a customer's trust.
If Environmental Health does get involved, it will first try to establish where the fault occurred. If the fault is found to be with the retailer (for instance, where contamination has occurred in a food to go area), Ramm says that formal action would depend on the seriousness of the matter, the history of the business and the attitude of the operator.
"In law, there is a defence of 'due diligence'. If the retailer really shouldn't be expected to have done more to prevent the problem, then prosecution is unlikely. Conversely, if the problem occurred because the retailer had a poor food safety management system then it is in the public's interest to prosecute. Closures occur when it is necessary to do so in the interest of public health, and this action isn't likely to result at retail level for a foreign body complaint."
While most contamination is accidental, there may occasionally be more sinister explanations. Bain says: "The most bizarre one we ever had was a loaf of bread with a large amount of bird droppings in it. It was clear to us it was fraudulent."
The case of a baby blackbird found in an individual pie also raised eyebrows, he says. Even if you suspect fraud, it's important to treat the matter in the same way as any other complaint - the fraud will usually be detected in the investigation process. Ramm adds: "If in doubt, ask Environmental Health for advice."
Above all, keep communicating with the supplier, manufacturer, insurance company and, most importantly, the customer. And Ramm has this advice: "Prevention is better than cure. Keep a tidy, well run business with good stock rotation, with adequate pest control practices. Only buy from reputable suppliers who operate high standards. Investigate complaints and give your customers the sort of answer you would be satisfied with if you were the person complaining."
Got it covered?Retailers who import cheap food from overseas are putting themselves at risk in the event of a foreign body contamination, according to Ian Hughes, retail manager at Layton Blackham Insurance Brokers. Hughes says that while the law of subrogation (whereby responsibility can be passed back to the place of contamination) can protect the retailer in many cases, it may not apply if the food is from an overseas source where traceability is problematic. Suddenly, those cheap foreign deals don't look like such a bargain after all.
When it comes to in-store contamination, Hughes says that retailers with bake-off or food service areas face the most problems: "You have to make sure your insurance cover matches your needs, and covers the weak links."
He points out that a lot of independents may lack adequate insurance if they buy purely on price. As well as employment and public liability insurance, retailers need product liability insurance, which should be included in a quality insurance package.
Nasty surprisesSome of the foreign objects people have claimed to have found in food:
- A maggot in a chocolate bar
- A condom in a loaf of bread
- A mouse's head in a ready meal
- A condom in a Cornish pasty
- A tooth in a cake
- A dead rat in a salad
- A finger in a sandwich
- A rat in a packet of crisps