How Advance Planning Can Help Food Processors During A Food Safety Crisis

Dec. 12, 2011
How a food processing company responds to a product contamination or recall crisis within the first 24 hours can define itself to its customers and consumers. A crisis communications manager explains how advance planning can make a difference.

How you respond in the first 24 hours of a food crisis can help you get past the incident quickly … or ensure that you’ll feel the pain for a long, long time.

Crises like product contamination and recalls attract a lot of media attention.  Some companies try to protect their reputations by indignantly denying responsibility. Unfortunately, this tends to do them more harm than good.

About the Author
Jim Martinez, a former reporter and editor, has spent years working as a crisis communications manager at some of the world’s largest public relations firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

Consider two things in food crises:  First, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration tend to do their homework before naming a specific food producer.  Second, bureaucrats don’t like to be challenged publicly.

So, if your response is denial, you risk making a powerful enemy who can extend your public relations problem long after the product crisis is resolved.  One Illinois company, Tiny Greens Organic Farm, learned this lesson the hard way.  It was targeted by the FDA last year when several Midwestern consumers became ill from salmonella after eating at a popular sandwich chain that used Tiny Greens sprouts. 

After the FDA cautioned consumers in December not to eat some of the company’s sprouts, Tiny Greens voluntarily recalled some products.  In January, the FDA reported that it had found salmonella like that involved in the outbreak in samples taken from Tiny Greens.  Owner Bill Bagby responded by denying the outbreak could involve his products and he called the FDA findings “misleading.” 

“My epidemiologist said it’s not probable that any of my product is contaminated,” Bagby told The Packer, a produce industry newspaper. “Possible, yes; but probable, no.”
The FDA responded in May by issuing a public warning letter to Tiny Greens, listing several potential problems and criticizing as “inadequate” several solutions Bagby had proposed. The FDA letter has gotten attention from both traditional and social media.

A recent search of Google for “Tiny Greens” showed two thirds of the citations on the first three pages of results deal with the company’s problems.  If you search for “Tiny Greens and FDA,” only one citation – a listing of the company’s web site – makes no mention of the salmonella outbreak in the first three pages of results.

Bad things happen to the best companies.  Customers and consumers are willing to forgive if executives demonstrate real commitment to doing the right thing.  They are far less forgiving of companies who do not acknowledge mistakes.  Companies need to anticipate issues and plan for them so their initial responses reassure stakeholders, not confuse or frustrate them.  Crisis planning is like product liability insurance.  You hope you never need it, but benefit greatly if you do.

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