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The Implications of the ConAgra Food Safety Case

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This week brought significant and perhaps troubling news to food and consumer product goods producers and their respective suppliers distributing products throughout the U.S.. Business headlines noted that a ConAgra Foods business unit agreed to plead guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge and pay an $11.2 million fine in conjunction with 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak involving the firm’s Peter Pan and Great Value branded peanut butter products.

At the time, the salmonella outbreak occurred across 47 states and sickened a reported 700 people. The outbreak was eventually traced to a manufacturing facility in the state of Georgia. As part of this week’s plea agreement, ConAgra admitted it had been aware of some risk of contamination prior to its voluntary recall. After this outbreak, ConAgra subsequently made was is reported to be significant upgrades to its manufacturing facility along with instituting advanced safety protocols.

This news is significant for this industry in a couple of rather important dimensions.  This week’s fine, although meager by today’s liability standards, is noted as the largest fine levied to-date in a food safety case. Once more, over these past months, federal authorities are now demonstrating intent to hold both companies and their individual executives accountable for food safety. According to The Wall Street Journal, since 2013 the Justice Department has won convictions or guilty pleas involving four criminal cases against food companies or the executives that run them.  The WSJ notes that in most of the recent cases, successful prosecution occurred even without proof that officials acted with criminal intent, which was a difficult hurdle for investigators to previously overcome. The significant nuance of holding executives accountable without proofing criminal intent has reportedly jolted the food industry, given its broad implications. That implies that executives are now legally accountable for food safety, and that might be interpreted to include senior supply chain executives. Certainly, we are not lawyers, and industry supply chain leaders are advised to seek out specific opinion from in-house legal counsel.

Food companies are now stepping-up efforts to improve food safety including investments in new technologies to monitor any signs of contamination or erosion in quality and to speed-up data analysis. That, in reality, may be good. However, it opens the doors to added sensitivities as to when manufacturers should recall food products, and the types or levels of internal documentation required as proof of proactive response to suspected contamination and/or disease.  The industry may well experience an increased rate of recall actions out of abundance of caution, as these new nuances are more fully understood.

The takeaway for consumers is hopefully safer food products in the coming months.  For supply chain management teams, the implication is added cautions and increased scrutiny of individual production, storage and distribution practices related to food production. Any notion that assuring proactive food safety practices is not my job is now null and void.  Food safety is every executive’s and every employee’s concern.

Bob Ferrari


A Significant New Milestone Involving the Quality Perception Crisis Among Automotive Supply Chains

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Throughout 2014, Supply Chain Matters called attention to the automotive sector and the unprecedented levels of product recalls that continued to stress auto aftermarket service supply chains and supplier relationships to their limits. From a tactical lens, we observed that the colliding forces of regulatory, political, supplier management and capacity-restrained automotive replacement spare parts networks may well continue for many more months, and that appears to be exactly what continues to unfold. Once more, Supply Chain Matters predicted that when the dust settles, the automotive industry and its supply chain ecosystem partners need to take a hard look at lessons learned.

While automotive OEM’s and their associated brands have taken the bulk of the consumer and regulatory heat around product recalls, quality defects have more often resided within either OEM product designs or parts suppliers and their associated product design or manufacturing processes.

The most significant culprits for the continuous litany of product recalls has been the ignition switch defects involving multiple General Motors vehicles and the alleged defective airbag inflators produced by Japan based supplier Takata Corp for multiple OEM producers. After undergoing continuous ongoing scrutiny from U.S. regulators these past months, Takata refused to broaden the scope of the defective inflators recall beyond a select number of U.S. States with high humidity concerns because the supplier supposedly could not determine the exact cause of defects. That is up to now.

This week provides yet another, but far-reaching significant milestone, namely what is being described as the largest automotive recall in U.S. history, and involving the same potentially defective air bag inflators originating from Takata. Bowing to intense pressure and scrutiny from regulators, Takata has now, for the first time acknowledged that there are defects in its air bag inflators, yet root causes remain unanswered. This week’s announced product recall will be conducted by 11 different automakers and now doubles the number of vehicles subject to recall. Business media now reports the overall vehicle recall as involving nearly 34 million existing automobiles in the United States. Six deaths and upwards of 100 injuries have been linked to the defective airbag inflator problem thus far.

In announcing the current expanded recall, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx indicated: “It’s fair to say that this is probably the most complex consumer safety recall in U.S. history.” Depending on which math is being referenced, the scope of the overall recall amounts to roughly 14 percent of the total vehicles now operating on U.S. roads. Add to that the scope of the 2 million plus vehicles included in the GM product recalls, along with other product related recalls and the picture of a large number of existing vehicles awaiting repair attention becomes a dominant picture. Needless to state, the implications of the continued litany of product recalls involving the industry are far reaching, for both OEM’s, their suppliers, and their service networks.

Logistically, as we and others have noted in our prior commentaries, it will take months and perhaps years for dealer and service parts networks to complete repairs on all recalled vehicles. That will cause additional safety concerns and added frustration among consumers. There are concerns that previous air bag deflator repairs to vehicles may have been completed with defective parts requiring the need for yet another repair.  As noted, the root-causes of the air bag deflator’s defects have yet to be determined by either Takata or a consortium of 10 automotive OEM’s. The shear volumes of cumulative open recalls are testing existing processes and supporting systems, perhaps to their breaking point. As we have pointed out, alternative suppliers have been recruited to augment supplies for both existing new production as well as repair parts needs.

From a political perspective, legislators and regulatory agencies continue to react to the concerns and frustrations of automotive consumers who wonder aloud if automakers really care about the quality of the vehicles they are producing as well as their attentiveness and timely response to vehicle safety. That leads to a continued sensitized regulatory and judicial perspective.

From a financial perspective, the bulk of the costs related to a litany of past product recalls have been on the shoulders of the OEM’s.  However, some automakers such as GM, have managed to shield themselves from expensive lawsuits from prior legislative actions dating back to a previous bankruptcy filing. That will change with the current scope and visibility brought to bear of the latest Takata related recalls. In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal cites one estimate indicating that Takata alone could face recall-related charges in the range of $4-$5 billion, far outpacing an original estimate of $1.6 billion. Yesterday, Takata’s stock fell 10 percent on the Tokyo Exchange as its investors adsorbed the implications. On a broader perspective, the issue of which party bears the bulk of the financial liability for component quality will again be up for discussion.

To be candid and blunt, product quality perceptions have become an overall mess, and it could not come at a worse time.  There was a feeling that automakers had come a long way in overall vehicle reliability but that perception belies the current picture of numerous vehicles now with open recalls.  Once more, consumers clamor for the latest technology advances in vehicle safety, comfort and convenience including all notions of the connected car. Many of these innovations stem from component and sub-system suppliers within an industry that has a track record of mostly marginal supplier relationship building. In its recent annual supplier poll conducted by Planning Perspectives, for the 14th straight year, suppliers continued to rank Toyota and Honda as best customers. Noted is the diametrically opposite goals of an adversarial relationship where OEM’s often seek a supplier’s best technology at the lowest possible price. Compounding the problem are activist investors and private equity firms investing in various tiers of automotive supply chains clamoring for more short-term returns for shareholders.

From our lens, the global automotive industry, and in-particular U.S. based OEM’s need to have rock solid quality focused product design and more responsive early warning quality mechanisms as a top industry priority. Industry executives need to seriously look beyond any perceptions of the panacea of a current super sensitive regulatory environment that will run its course. The notions of an industry solely being driven by lower product margin goals and placing the bulk of that burden on suppliers has to change.  Component, systems and overall vehicle reliability is not the purview of a marketing campaign but rather a systemic process that spans end-to-end product and aftermarket service centered supply chains. Component and systems quality must be a living fabric of supplier relationship management and suppliers need to be fairly compensated for assuring high standards in product design and process innovation, especially considering current product strategies leveraging common brand and/or vehicle model platforms. The stakes are even higher when considering that the electronic and software content of vehicles continues to rise implying more sophisticated reliability and systems focused hardware and software related engineering. In the analogy of carrot and stick agreements, the carrot is longer-term, more collaborative based product design and supply chain focused relationships and the stick is the shared responsibility and liability for warranty and/or product recall costs attributed to vehicle sub-systems such as vehicle safety.

Finally, you may have noticed that lately, not a day goes by without a barrage of targeted online or traditional media ads urging we as consumers to buy or lease that new car with latest technological features.  From our lens, the industry will be better served by re-allocating existing marketing and sales budgets towards investments in more robust early-warning mechanisms related to component quality and to current overburdened and perhaps collapsing aftermarket service networks that are the first line of intelligence for quality and vehicle safety.

Bob Ferrari

© 2015 The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group and the Supply Chain Matters® blog. All rights reserved.


Lumber Liquidators Suspends All China Sourced Laminate Flooring Products

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Lumber Liquidators, one of the largest and fastest growing retailers of hardwood and laminate flooring in North America, announced this week that it is suspending all of its China sourced laminate flooring products. The announcement comes after the 60 Minutes investigative news television program turned a public light on suspected high levels of formaldehyde from certain China based flooring offered by this retailer.  In our prior Supply Chain Matters commentary related to this incident, we expressed little doubt that the situation would continue to reverberate among business headlines, and so it has.

In its latest announcement, the retailer indicates:

Based on the review to date, it appears that the Company’s Chinese laminate flooring suppliers have sold product to the Company that the suppliers have certified and labeled as compliant with California formaldehyde standards. However, the Company is further reviewing the underlying certification and labeling processes and practices of its suppliers.”

The retailer further indicates that a Special Committee composed of independent directors, with the assistance of third party advisors, has been conducting an ongoing review of allegations regarding laminate flooring sourced from China. That body has now engaged a former FBI director and his firm to review the retailer’s product sourcing practices and to serve as an independent compliance advisor.

Since the March disclosure by the 60 Minutes program, Lumber Liquidators began voluntarily offering free indoor air quality screening to certain of its flooring customers, predominately those who had purchased laminate flooring sourced from China. Home air test kits were selected as a quick means to measure the total level of formaldehyde in indoor air from all sources, not just from the flooring.  This week’s release further indicates:

From early March through May 1, 2015, BHC sent approximately 26,000 testing kits to nearly 15,000 Lumber Liquidators customers and approximately 11,000 of those testing kits were returned.  As of May 1, 2015, over 3,400 testing kits from approximately 2,600 households with laminate flooring sourced from China had been reviewed and analyzed. Of those households, over 97% had indicated indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde that were within the guidelines set by the World Health Organization as protective against sensory irritation and long-term health effects.”

Lumber Liquidator’s swift actions and response are laudable, but as a supply chain and procurement community we all know, consumers will undoubtedly have their own impressions regarding the safety of flooring sourced from China.  Thus, the action to temporarily suspend all sourcing of China based supply, pending a total independent review, makes practical and timely business sense.

To reiterate, beyond the Wall Street, shareholder and legal messiness, this incident is yet another example of the needs for transparency across the global supply chain, particularly when an individual country’s or state’s product safety standards are cited. As business media such as The Wall Street Journal is now reporting, there is no recognized national U.S. standard for indoor formaldehyde concentrations and global wide standards vary among agencies. Interpretation of standards can tend to take on a different lens from different suppliers and thus the need for vigilant and consistent supplier monitoring and risk awareness.

Bob Ferrari

 


Not a Good Week for Food Related Supply Chains in the U.S.

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From a supply chain disruption perspective, this week has proven to be a rather concerning one for food related supply chains within the United States. And, there may well be added implications in the weeks to come.

Two developments have dominated business and general media; a widespread outbreak of a strain of bird flu that is currently spreading across upper U.S. Midwest states, and a listeria outbreak that has forced a well-known branded producer to suspend sales of its entire product line-up.

Avian Influenza Outbreak

An Iowa chicken farm raising upwards of 3 million chickens is the latest to suffer the effects of what is being described as sharp escalation of bird flu that, according to one report, is rattling the U.S. poultry industry. Iowa is reportedly the largest producing state for egg production. The latest outbreak reported yesterday brings the estimated total number of chickens and turkeys affected by avian bird flu to nearly 8 million.

The largest two turkey producers, Butterball and Hormel Foods have each reported significant supply chain challenges as outbreaks occurring in Minnesota and Wisconsin are where turkeys are predominantly raised.

To mitigate the further spread of the virus, farmers must destroy all birds confirmed to have the virus. The Governor of Wisconsin declared a state of emergency earlier this week authorizing state officials to issue quarantine directives related to feed and poultry.

The states impacted thus far include Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. No human cases of avian influenza have been detected and U.S. health officials indicate the current outbreak poses no human health risk. None the less, consumers are obviously rattled and concerned by the news. Farmers and meat processors are on high alert and are taking measures to monitor stocks as well as visitors to farms.

Listeria Related Product Recall

The other important development concerns Texas based Blue Bell Creameries which on Monday, widened  a series of voluntary recalls to now include all of its branded ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks branded products distributed among 23 states and various international locations.  The recall was prompted after samples of Blue Bell Ice Cream recallchocolate chip cookie dough ice cream tested positive for the potentially deadly disease, listeria. Thus far, health officials have traced 8 reported illnesses amounting to three deaths which have been linked to contaminated ice cream, but active investigations continue. According to an FDA advisory and a Blue Bell press release, the illness was tracked by health officials to a Blue Bell production line in Texas, and later to another production line in Oklahoma. Consumers are warned not to eat the recall products and throw away or return any purchased product.

Blue Bell itself has taken relatively swift action by actively removing products from retailers and other food service facilities it serves. A statement from Blue Bell’s CEO Paul Kruse apologizes to consumers along with a firm commitment to fix the problem. Blue Bell is implementing a “test and hold” process for all products made at all of its manufacturing facilities, meaning that all products will be tested first and held for release to the market only after the tests show they are safe. Other actions include daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment, expanded testing and additional employee training.

As is the usual for these types of recalls, the recall news spreads fast and wide with the amplification of the Internet and social media.  At this writing, we performed a Google search of the terms “Blue Bell listeria’ which yielded over 2000 web postings thus far. From our tracking of previous high visibility product recalls, there will likely be more short-term impact to the brand before this situation is resolved.

Supply Chain Matters applauds Blue Bell for taking such prompt and far reaching actions. Not many consumer packaged goods companies would recall the entire product line.

Bob Ferrari

 


Johnson & Johnson Moves to Close a Chapter in Multiple Branded Product Recalls

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In the period between 2008-2010, pharmaceutical and healthcare products provider Johnson & Johnson, and in particular, its McNeil Consumer Products operating unit, faced a building crisis involving multiple branded OTC healthcare remedies such as Tylenol, because of quality and process issues focused on  a specific production facility in Fort Washington Pennsylvania. After numerous product recalls, that plant was subsequently shutdown for remedial actions and has yet to re-open.

This week, McNeil announced an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve the previously disclosed government investigation relating to the manufacturing of certain over-the-counter products at its Fort Washington facility. The company agreed to pay a $20 million criminal fine and forfeit $5 million. Under this agreement, McNeil reportedly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation and accepted responsibility for the inadequate filing of required documentation during the manufacturing process. In its announcement, McNeil states in-part:

McNeil has been implementing enhanced quality and oversight standards across its entire business to ensure we are best able to meet our commitment to consumers, patients and doctors who rely on our products.”

In a July 2013 Supply Chain Matters commentary, we highlighted all of the efforts that were underway to transform all of Johnson & Johnson’s supply chain processes. Senior executive changes were part of that transformation effort along with a declaration of five strategic priorities:

  1. Deliver on FDA consent decree milestones
  2. Ensure reliable supply of OTC products to retailers and consumers
  3. Achieve brand leadership
  4. Rebuild customer trust including top retail customers
  5. Execute a return to market plan for core U.S. brands and SKU’

J&J subsequently centralized its supply chain efforts under a singular leadership model, along with a singular quality and compliance model. In the systems area, a four year program was outlined to consolidate an overall systems landscape that was described as 60 different ERP systems supporting 275 operating companies

The McNeil statement indicates: “this plea agreement fully and finally resolves the federal government’s investigation, and closes a chapter on actions that led the company to review and significantly improve its procedures.”

In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal cited the U.S. Justice Department as indicating that McNeil continues working to bring the Fort Washington facility into regulatory compliance and plans to re-open the facility once it gains approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. McNeill’s other production facilities are reportedly running under a 2011 permanent injunction and Consent Decree. McNeil indicates that a third party cGMP expert has now submitted written certification to the FDA after determining all sites are conforming with applicable laws and regulations.

Seven years and a considerable financial sum later, J&J continues in its organizational wide efforts to address consistency in good manufacturing practices.

No doubt, this has been an expensive lesson for Johnson & Johnson, as well as a rather important learning for the remainder of the industry regarding the critical importance of consistent product quality and supply chain wide standards in avoiding negative business outcomes.

Bob Ferrari

 


Lumber Liquidators’s China Based Supply Chain Linked to Reported Health Concerns

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Lumber Liquidators is reported to be one of the largest and fastest growing retailers of hardwood and laminate flooring in North America.  This weekend, a broadcast report from CBS News’s 60 Minutes program turned a public light on this retailer’s supply chain and the consequences are becoming quite troublesome from a brand and financial perspective.

The 60 Minutes report concluded that:

“Much of its (Lumber Liquidator’s) laminate flooring is made in China, and as we discovered during our investigation, may fail to meet health and safety standards, because it contains high levels of formaldehyde, a known cancer causing chemical.”

All laminate flooring carried by Lumber Liquidators bears a label indicating that it is CARB Phase 2–compliant, referring to the California Air Resources Board, which sets standards for formaldehyde emissions in wood flooring.

The program reported these findings after conducting its own sanctioned tests of select flooring and after interviewing workers among various China based suppliers. An executive director of a nonprofit group was teamed-up with a prominent environmental attorney, to test the Chinese-made laminate flooring. Chinese suppliers were interviewed by a 60 Minutes reporting team posing as buyers and using hidden cameras. Employees of three Chinese mills indicated they were using core boards with higher levels of formaldehyde to save the retailer up to 15 percent on price. Three mills further admitted on camera to falsely labeling products as CARB 2–compliant. The report then concluded:

While laminate flooring from Home Depot and Lowes had acceptable levels of formaldehyde, as did Lumber Liquidators American-made laminates, every single sample of Chinese-made laminate flooring from Lumber Liquidators failed to meet California formaldehyde emissions standards. Many by a large margin.” 

Lumber Liquidators’ founder and chairman, Tom Sullivan, indicated to 60 Minutes that the tests weren’t valid and said the company isn’t required by law to test finished products, as the program did. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday, the company reiterated that the testing method on which the CBS program based its report was improper. It said it is fully compliant with California standards. “Our laminate floors are completely safe to use as intended” the filing said.

While this retailer vociferously insists that its flooring is safe and meets certain standards for environmental safety, the initial fallout among investors has been severe. Shares of the company’s stock closed down 25 percent today, and were halted through the morning ahead of a planned news release. A published report from MarketWatch indicates that this retailer blamed the attacks as the work of short sellers, “who are working together for the purpose of making money by lowering our stock price.” This report further indicates that short interest in Lumber Liquidators stock reached 30 percent ahead of the CBS program’s airing, according to FactSet data. The company is reportedlybeing sued by environmentalists, backed by a group of Wall Street short sellers, who accuse the company of violating California’s toxic-warning statue.

Beyond the Wall Street and legal messiness, this incident is yet another example of the needs for transparency across the global supply chain, particularly when an individual country’s or state’s product safety standards are cited. Interpretation of standards can tend to take on a different lens from different suppliers and thus the need for vigilant and consistent supplier monitoring. Supply chain focused snafus or product quality issues continue to cause reverberations for brand loyalty and investor confidence. The fact that news networks can place hidden cameras and conduct interviews of a company’s suppliers is further cause for concern.

No doubt, the situation at Lumber Liquidators will continue to reverberate among business headlines in the days to come.

 


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