The U.S. produce industry has “a moral and legal responsibility” to do what’s right for consumers, says a long-time leader in the food industry and a survivor of numerous product recalls during his career.

Gale Prince, President of SAGE, a food safety consulting firm, uses his decades of experience with Kroger and other companies to help prevent or limit damage from food product contamination. He was keynote speaker at the recent Texas Food Safety Conference in Austin.

Prince says the produce industry has been placed under a magnifying glass following numerous product recalls over the past few years. “We saw a 400 percent increase in recalls from 2007 to 2010,” he says.

Reasons for the increase include changes in consumer preferences, which now include combining different leafy vegetables in packaged salad products. Also, detection is much more accurate and contaminants may be identified down to “parts per trillion,” Prince says.

“Things that have never been a problem before are now.” Salmonella and allergen identifications have increased. “In 2010, 72 percent (of contamination issues) were related to Salmonella. Allergen incidents have tripled.”

He says 94 percent of produce recalls involve microbiological contaminants with more than 60 percent of those identified as Salmonella. “In the ‘60s, when I started my career, we found Salmonella in eggs. Now it’s common in many products.”

He says imports are a prime source of food contamination, particularly from produce, seeds and spices, among other products. Contaminated cantaloupe in mixed fruit is a common problem as is contamination in lettuce, sprouts and sliced apples.

Friday afternoon is the most likely time for a recall to be initiated, Prince says. “Friday is the busiest day in a supermarket. And it’s often difficult to get in touch with the people you need to talk to on Friday afternoon (following a recall notice). Most recalls occur after 2 p.m.”

Prince says a company must be prepared to deal with recalls on weekends. “Make certain the company’s recall manual is current. All the programs I review need work. Times are changing.”

He says a recall may necessitate a company CEO getting in touch with his lawyer, a micro-biologist or other specialist on short notice. The contact list should be handy and current. He says the protocol also should include a draft news release and customer information.

“It’s essential to notify customers who received the recalled product and also the ones who did not,” he says. “Maintain a list of all products and combinations along with a master list of all lot coding systems. Define the lot coding system and establish parameters to fit desired economic exposure.”

He says companies should test those parameters to make certain they will be sufficient. “Conduct traceability exercises,” he says.