In 1996, E. coli was still a new concern in the minds of American consumers. Just three years earlier, the bacteria permanently shifted public perception of foodborne illness from a nuisance to something with potentially fatal consequences when it sickened almost 700 people and killed four children who ate undercooked burgers at Jack in the Box.
In November of that year, Edelman worked with Odwalla to launch the first dedicated website to manage a recall when the company’s apple juice had to be pulled off shelves due to E. coli contamination. The site, which provided updates, answered questions, and engaged with concerned consumers, was viewed as a groundbreaking way to communicate back in the days of the early internet.
Over 20 years later, much has changed about the way we eat, the way food is produced and the way companies communicate in times of crisis. But the urgency and seriousness of food safety, as well as the consumer desire for two-way engagement with food and beverage brands, remains the same.
Recalls occur more frequently than ever. According to an April report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, over the 10-year span from 2004-2013, annual instances of recalls more than doubled. Counterintuitively, this is because food companies are actually getting better at food safety. The ability to detect pathogens and other contaminants improved markedly over that decade. And the definition of “safe” has also expanded, as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 expanded the FDA’s prevention and inspection mandate. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), passed in 2004, revamped labeling requirements for allergens and ingredients derived from them. According to Stericycle’s Recall Index, undeclared allergens were the most common cause of recalls for both USDA and FDA in Q1 of 2018.
Brands now face the challenging reality that food safety incidents can range from relatively straightforward (a check of the homepages of FDA and the USDA’s FSIS reveals that new recalls are announced daily, and most do not find their way to the radar of the general public) to category-crippling catastrophe (such as this spring’s outbreak of E. coli in lettuce that tore across 35 U.S. states and caused five deaths).
With such a wide spectrum of outcomes, there are some constants companies can keep in mind as they aim to stay prepared:
The only certainty about the near future of food safety is that even more potential changes are on the horizon. The Trump administration has proposed merging the FSIS and the FDA’s food safety functions into one department living within USDA; the FDA is facing scrutiny of its preference for voluntary recalls; and the Center for Science in the Public Interest is asking for the allergens covered by FALCPA to be revisited and expanded.
For brand communicators who want to pressure-test their organization’s ability to follow these tenets, the gold standard – and the centerpiece of Edelman’s engagement with many clients – is a full crisis simulation session. Your most valuable tools in a food safety crisis will always be your people, not plans that can get left on the shelf in the heat of the moment. By ensuring that employees get the chance to put these principles into practice, you can feel confident about your ability to respond in the moment and minimize reputational damage.
Matt Coldagelli is a senior vice president, Chicago.