No more botulin in olives, please

Preserved olives (“Organic Olives Stuffed with Almonds”) made in Italy have apparently caused a tragic death in Finland, because of botulism. They are being recalled across Europe (in the UK, in Ireland).

At the time of writing, I firmly hope that there is no further exposure to the product, no further illness, and that a totally preventable death does at least help stave off pain from other lives and families.

The tragic event relates to some lines of reflection relevant to our current research and consulting work.

First, one will note that the recall (which concerns currently all batches of the product) is now clearly mentioned on the firm`s website. Starting on October 28, the news had some traction in Italy too. Informing the public of own recalls through their own websites is considered best practice, though only a minority of companies appear to do so on either side of the Atlantic; apparently, on that day the company sent a Press Release to Italy’s leading news agency, ANSA.

Italian authorities, who are certainly taking action in the field, have also been silent about the issue, including whether the same product is distributed locally (it turns out it is), till today, October 31 (the Ministry of Health seems to confirm that the olives were on sale in Italy too, and that the plant has been shut down). Normally Italian authorities go public when botulism is suspected, unlike when other foodborne disease is (Listeriosis, Salmonellosis, etc), or when there is no illness. Italian authorities generally believe that they are capable of controlling risks, and that information to consumers would not reduce the risk to consumers but would result in undue alarmism, with unwarranted losses to the relevant food sector. This is in line with the attitude in Germany and other EU countries, and contrasts sharply with the US/UK approach, though in principle the UK has the same regulatory system (a lay-man reading of the EU General Food Safety Law would support UK`s practice). However, botulism is an exception, and in this case there was lots of media pressure, and a tragic death to confirm the need to go public.

Generally, however, even beyond botulism, we expect more food recalls to be publicized in Italy and other previously shy EU countries, because of several reasons.

Consumers are becoming used to nonfood recalls (for example, those of IKEA are common place), even if they see very few food-related ones. Moreover, when a food recall has in fact been made public and there were no illnesses, the media impact has been nihil or benign. Therefore, the brand damage of issuing a press release in case of a recall can now be estimated with some confidence. The cost of not going public early, on the other hand, is also becoming clearer: consumers are coming to expect public recalls as part of a company`s social responsibility. In this case, the delay has further tarnished, or probably killed, the brand reputation – when the issue was clearly too large to remain silent.

There also seems to be more willingness of international companies to apply best practice across the EU, even against national norms. Carrefour went recently public with a recall.

Also, some online media blogs and magazines are increasing their attention to this topic, and put pressure on firms (and authorities).

Leaving communication aside, organic, or home-made style, preserved olives have caused recurring botulism problems in Italy and elsewhere. This is striking. We have understood botulism for almost two centuries, and there is is strong food technology to keep the toxins out of our food. Preserving food requires knowledge, process and controls: food safety is not a malicious invention of multinational funded, greedy, positivist tradition haters. Most organic or home-made style food businesses may accept the anti-science rhetoric, but refrain from practicing it. Nevertheless, a few, smaller ones may not realize the need for skilled staff; more do not realize that validation of processes is not auditors`latest oddity. How much this applies to the present case it is early to say, though we know for sure that botulin should not have been there, and that the technology to prevent it is available.

In this respect, the organic food industry should be bold, and use its means, without excuses, to rid us of the hazards, least this tarnishes the organic brand (through certification they have strong tools). There is certainly a place for auditors, and official control staff to just say no when preserving can`t be done properly.

In summary, we advise to review recall plans under the communication header and make sure not to make, or stop making, preserved foods (my steadfast advice to all agriturismi is not to do it) or, if you do, that you can make it properly (for every recipe).

And let`s hope nobody hears, or dies, of botulism and olives again.

Luca Bucchini, Managing Director

Update:  on Nov 1st, the FDA made the recall (which is of a voluntary nature) public.

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