The FSA’s decision to rescind the Bart Ingredients ground cumin recall will (and should) be a cause of some concern.

We know already that the FSA initiated a sampling programme in UK retailers in January, following a series of reported incidents involving cumin products in the US and Canada, and then announced the recall of three batches of ground cumin as a precautionary measure due to the apparent presence of undeclared traces of almond protein. The contaminated spices in North America were traced back to Turkish suppliers. Now, the results of further testing for the FSA have indicated there was no almond in the ground cumin sampled in the UK after all. Bart Ingredients will probably have suffered significant losses as a consequence of the original decision. However there is unlikely to be any recourse, at least against the FSA, which has emphasised that it was properly fulfilling its role to protect consumers.

This much is true, and the precautionary approach will play well with consumers and some sections of the media.   Nevertheless, the FSA has said it will carry out a review of its testing methodologies. The false positive with the cumin testing was mahaleb, which is not on the allergens list. The industry will be keen to hear the outcome of the review but we should also consider how decisions are made. This is far from the first case in which there have been discrepancies over the reliability of test results – it was a feature of the horsemeat scandal in 2013. In addition to problems with false positives, different analytical methodologies can give different results. The FSA has said that it and the LGC have now developed mass spectrometry techniques which can distinguish almond and mahaleb proteins. However, this will be of little commercial comfort to Bart.

In addition to the Bart recall, in February there were also recalls of two fajita kits and a taco seasoning for undeclared almond in paprika products.  The FSA is remaining cautious about these recalls for now – the suspected almond contamination has not yet been confirmed as attributable to mahaleb, but further refinement of testing methodology will follow.

There are some statements of principle that can be made. If there is a positive test, manufacturers should carry out re-tests on further samples from the same potentially affected batch. In a crisis situation, securing access to limited specialist laboratory resource can be crucial. So put that relationship in place if it is not already. Ensure that incoming raw materials and finished products are tested regularly against specification and for relevant contaminants. This is a global issue; European businesses, for example, should monitor events further afield. And the scientific relationships are important to keep track of developments in analytical methods.

And the lesson for the FSA? First that there is a lesson (challenge the apparent evidence as necessary before acting). Second, just as a recall is a serious step and needs to be decided with some urgency, so too is the verification of that decision. Five months feels far too long for the U-turn.