Feeding the demand
Marlborough start-up quickly gains a following by tracking and tweeting food recalls, safety issues
Susan Reef was shopping in a small Andover grocery story one fall day in 2008 when an elderly woman asked her advice about buying tomatoes in the midst of a salmonella outbreak. Reef directed the woman to the store manager, but the recall was still on Reef’s mind when she got home.
As she searched the Internet, she quickly found there was no easy way for consumers to learn about food safety recalls, with fragmentary information scattered across the websites of government agencies, grocers, and food industry groups. An idea was planted that would lead Reef to become a leading source for food safety information.
Reef is the founder of USFoodSafety.com, a three-year-old Marlborough start-up that is attracting tens of thousands of visitors to its website, providing a wide range of consumer information about food recalls. The site often averages more that 100,000 unique visitors a month while the audience for its award-winning blog, US Food Safety, has been growing at a rate of about 17 percent a month and now tops 30,000 readers. Reef’s Twitter account, @FoodSafeGuru, has more than 85,000 followers.
“Food became a passion,’’ Reef said. “I just had a brainstorm one evening and never looked back.’’
USFoodSafety.com aims to fill the gaps in a fractured reporting system. When a company launches a recall, it could be reported to the Food and Drug Administration; the US Department of Agriculture; or various state agencies. In Rhode Island, for example, the site helped get out details of a state recall after two deaths were connected to zeppoles — Italian fried dough pastries — made at a Cranston bakery.
Even if consumers subscribe to the FDA’s recall notification service, they still might not get crucial information, such as where the products are sold. When Marketplace brand pizza was recalled last year because it contained plastic pieces, the USDA failed to mention the pri vate label was sold exclusively at
“We are trying to make consumers aware of what they should know about,’’ said Reef.
USFoodSafety.com collects information coming from stores, food processors, and multiple state and federal agencies and sorts it all outs. It breaks out the recall by type, whether it involves general food safety, allergens, or dietary supplements, and shows the states affected.
Very few other organizations provide similar services, even fewer as comprehensively as Reef’s company. Nancy Donley, president of STOP Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit public health advocacy group, which also disseminates information on recalls, said USFoodSafety.com is playing a key role in alerting and educating consumers.
“Just putting the information out there for her followers, that’s good stuff,’’ Donley said. “It’s important that consumers have an easy way of getting information about recalls — so they don’t have to go to a government website to find information, but the information finds them.’’
Reef’s company, US Food Safety Corp., generates revenue from two sources: advertising on its website and tuition it charges for food safety courses, which certify food industry workers in safe handling and inspection processes. The company is now breaking even, and expects to be profitable by November, Reef said.
Before she started USFoodSafety.com, Reef had helped some food companies build websites. She also operated a business buying and selling Internet domain names. When she decided to launch the site, she already owned its domain name.
Reef had to learn the intricacies of the food recall process, including deciphering dense, technical bureaucratic language that can make it difficult to determine just how serious a recall is. Her site established itself as a credible source after a particularly serious recall in 2009, when peanut butter and other products by the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America were linked to a massive outbreak of salmonella.
USFoodSafety.com not only detailed which brands were involved in the recall, but also provided lists of brands that were safe. “This is more than just putting the recall out there,’’ she said.
As interest in the site has grown, so has the company, which now employs six. Last year, Reef gave up a 120-square-foot office in Wilmington, and expanded into a 1,400-square-foot suite in Marlborough. In addition she hired a new chief executive, Bruce Rubin, former chief executive of Tribe Mediterranean Foods of Taunton.
Rubin, who left Tribe in 2009 after its sale, brought real world insight that has helped inform food safety courses. He experienced his own recall in 1997 when Tribe hummus tested positive for listeria, a bacteria more deadly than salmonella. No matter how well-run the company, or how many precautions are taken, he said, food safety will be an issue.
“As long as people are involved in the process, this will always be a problem,’’ Rubin said. “A lot of [recalls] are caused by human mistakes.’’
Reef said she sees herself as a consumer advocate, as much as business owner, helping to fill in gaps in the food safety system. Still, she remains concerned that government, particularly in this era of shrinking federal and state budgets, doesn’t have the manpower to properly police the nation’s food supply.
“I worry,’’ she said. “I really worry.’’