When food goes bad, it's Chris Gindorff's job to get it off the shelf of every Lunds and Byerly's supermarket. He's the person at Lund Food Holdings Inc. who orchestrates a food recall, and when the Food and Drug Administration sent an e-mail last month about a peanut butter plant in Georgia, Gindorff took notice.
"I knew this was going to be big," he said.
What happened next was part detective novel, part military campaign, as Gindorff and a team of managers hunted down the infected peanut butter among the tens of thousands of things sold through the company's supermarkets.
The urgency of their task grew as the recall expanded to cover not just institutional-size buckets of peanut butter, but peanut products that could have ended up anywhere: on the shelves in brand-name products, in the cookies made in store bakeries or in Lunds' own packaged foods.
Behind any item in a supermarket is a web of food plants, suppliers, manufacturers. Each ingredient may have come from a separate location, or even multiple locations, mixed together somewhere else and then, finally, delivered to the store.
The arrangements that deliver food from a manufacturer to a retailer allow for much fluidity within the food chain, a benefit for most people involved. It also complicates recalls. In some moments of the Peanut Corp. of America recall, Gindorff manually typed in thousands of product codes from various foods into his office computer, searching a Lunds database of everything on its shelves.
Lunds agreed to share with the Star Tribune a behind-the-scenes account of how it responded to one of the largest and most complicated food recalls in recent memory.
It began with an e-mail.
Friday, Jan. 9
6:06 p.m.: The Minnesota Department of Health scores a hit. Its investigators, pursuing leads in a national salmonella outbreak, are the first in the country to identify King Nut brand peanut butter as the source. The department issues an e-mail alert at 6:06 p.m., identifying the 5-pound pail of King Nut peanut butter as the contaminated product. Gindorff, who subscribes to the Health Department's e-mail alerts, gets the message on his BlackBerry.
He calls three Lunds managers who are responsible for every piece of food coming into the supermarket: the store-brand manager, the senior manager for grocery and the procurement manager, the person who buys ingredients for the supermarket's bakeries.
A typical Lunds or Byerly's store carries more than 30,000 distinct products, each with its own Universal Product Code, or UPC. That's the black-and-white bar code that cashiers scan at the checkout. It's also the key for most retailers when a recall is announced; no other code works as quickly.
Using the UPC of the King Nut product, the procurement manager checks his database of store products and quickly determines they don't use anything from the 5-pound pail. The grocery manager moves quickly as well; since the 5-pound pail is an institutional product sold to food service operations, it's not carried by the retailer.
The store-brand manager has a more complicated job. She must contact each of the 44 suppliers who make the foods that end up as Lunds and Byerly's products. Some of those suppliers, in turn, must check with their sources.
Saturday, Jan. 10
9:37 a.m.: All clear. The store-brand manager hears from the last of the suppliers and tells Gindorff that none of the suppliers used peanut butter from the King Nut 5-pound pails in any Lunds and Byerly's store-brand products. Each supplier gets a 15-page document when entering into business with Lunds. The agreement stipulates that the suppliers have 24 hours, in the event of a recall, to tell Lunds whether they've received recalled items. "Sometimes we're going four layers deep through the suppliers," Gindorff said.
The recall goes quiet for a few days, but Gindorff doesn't feel like it's over yet. An ongoing FDA investigation at the Peanut Corp. of America plant and his experience with past recalls have him anxious that more news might be coming.
Sunday, Jan. 18
The FDA issues a general notice to consumers that essentially says to postpone eating peanut butter until further notice, following up three days later with a website listing all contaminated products.
Wednesday, Jan. 28
11:44 a.m.: A tip. The Food Manufacturing Institute tells members, including Lunds and Byerly's, that the recall will expand to include more Peanut Corp. products, including peanuts.
2:55 p.m.: Armed with new information on the scope of the recall, Gindorff again calls his three managers and tells them to make the same checks they made earlier, only this time include all items from the Peanut Corp. plant.
Thursday, Jan. 29
8:26 a.m.: A hit. The store-brand manager says one of the suppliers, the New Jersey company that makes the Lunds and Byerly's snack nut items, bought peanuts from the Peanut Corp. of America. The supplier sends the e-mail to Julie Griffin, the store-brand manager, Gindorff and several others at Lunds, including the produce manager, who immediately contacts stores to clear the shelves.
9:31 a.m.: All stores have workers pulling snack nut mix from the aisles.
1:43 p.m.: The company's website announces the recall of its snack mix.
4:08 p.m.: A second hit. A supplier, the Bergin Fruit and Nut Co. of St. Paul, confirms that it, too, has peanuts from the Peanut Corp. of America. Lunds sells the Bergin product in its bulk foods section. Workers pull it from the stores.
Monday, Feb. 2
As alarming as the two hits were on Thursday, Gindorff gets worse news today. "Things just busted wide open," he said. Dozens of companies, some of them major national brands, begin issuing news releases and contacting the FDA with recalled items. Some of those products are sold at Lunds and Byerly's. Gindorff, working in his office at the Lunds production facility in Eden Prairie, types in the UPC of each item as the FDA notices appear, searching a Lunds and Byerly's database of every product sold on their shelves. He issues alerts to store managers to pull more products.
Tuesday, Feb. 3
More news releases go out. Gindorff types in more UPCs. He issues more alerts, and more products are pulled. By the end of the day, the stream of new recalls slows down, though some continue to trickle in as the week wears on.
The creeping nature of the recall, with Company A announcing a recall one day and Company B announcing one the next, leaves many consumers wondering why it's so hard for companies to identify contaminated food and remove it from their shelves.
Store record-keeping is partly to blame, industry experts say. But a bigger cause is the intertwined nature of the food chain.
"It gets back to the complexity of the supply chain," said John Hanlin, vice president for food safety at Supervalu, the Eden Prairie-based retailer with 2,500 supermarkets nationwide.
A state government study in North Carolina last year surveyed 250 stores in the days after the recall of Castleberry's canned food due to botulism and found that 38 percent of stores in that state still had recalled items for sale.
Friday, Feb. 20
The Peanut Corp. of America recall eventually leads Lunds and Byerly's to pull 61 items as of Friday. The spread of salmonella has sickened 41 Minnesotans and killed three. Lunds and Byerly's receive no reports that any of their customers were among those injured. A criminal investigation at the Peanut Corp. plant indicates that charges will be filed against the plant's operators.