Communicating in a Food Safety Crisis

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:

  • Build (or fix) the roof while the sun is shining. Some companies are engaging with consumers daily. But for those that aren’t (an ingredient company, or a co-packer, for instance), a recall may be the first substantial interaction the public has with their brand. What will be awaiting them when they visit a homepage? By publicly showcasing their approach and commitment to food safety, companies can at the very least avoid starting from scratch. What are you doing today to build your case as a responsible actor when it comes to food safety?
  • Open as many lines of communication as you can. Expand your call center hours. Make sure someone is manning your “Contact Us” email inbox through waking hours. Update your general reception message to provide people with directions on where they can get more information. When consumers are fearing for their families’ wellbeing, not being able to reach anyone will make them feel the company doesn’t care about what happens to them.
  • Your record is on the record. If you start getting media attention, your previous food safety incidents will resurface. Plan accordingly. If there have been significant changes in the interim, find ways to communicate those. It also doesn’t necessarily take a prior incident for a brand to face more intense scrutiny. Depending on how a company is positioned or marketed, a food safety crisis could fly in the face of everything it has claimed to be (such as Chipotle’s run of foodborne illnesses after years of claiming to serve “Food with Integrity”).
  • Measure twice (or three, or four times), cut once. For food products especially, emotions will be high and the pressure to react will be considerable, and it will come not just from outside stakeholders but from within the organization itself. But going public with information that is anything less than ironclad is the surest way to escalate a food safety crisis. Issuing corrections, expanding the recall scope, or any other form of backtracking signals that a company does not have the situation under control. Consumers are already skeptical – after all, you’ve already announced a recall – and any indication that remediation efforts are disorganized will severely hamper efforts to rebuild trust in the aftermath.
  • Don’t wait to call for help. There are no prizes awarded for working the longest without outside expertise. Whether outside counsel, communications support, or a subject matter expert is needed, asking your staff to start work solo with a “let’s see where this goes” approach is a slippery slope that can lead to some of the mistakes described above.

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.

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