It doesn’t take much effort to find a daily food safety story in the media. From tainted flour to metal in sugar to salmonella-laden alfalfa sprouts, it feels like there are more and more food safety outages facing consumers and the food industry. This means communications experts need to be ready to guide clients through the response process and dust off, or even create, their crisis management plan.
Posture is the first step
A kneejerk reaction for food companies may be to challenge the regulatory bodies—Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). This usually stems from a lack of understanding on how food safety issues are identified.
The first big mistake is for a food company to doubt or challenge how the agency is conducting the investigation. FDA does not take kindly to unfounded criticism, and it has a long memory. We should start from the position that the FDA, along with CDC and others, has done its homework. They have tracked a cluster of illnesses with a common denominator and have conducted testing to get to the point of alerting the company and consumers. Additionally, the new Food Safety Modernization Act requires more ingredient-supplier control points and provides more power and oversight to the FDA (such as mandatory recalls).
As counselors, we must help our clients position themselves as cooperative, respectful and responsive. First impressions are lasting, especially under these circumstances.
Proactive recalls can build trust
Recently you may have seen a larger number of voluntary recalls. This is when food companies have identified something wrong in the process—a contamination, a malfunctioning piece of equipment, a supplier who has identified a problem—and proactively recall the product from the market to avoid the chance of someone becoming ill. We see an abundance of caution from food companies when a supplier alerts them that they found listeria in their sunflower seeds, for example.
Trust between ingredient suppliers, food manufacturers and consumers is vital, and trust is easy to lose. When the source of contamination is hard to nail down, it speaks volumes when a company has the foresight to pull a product while it goes through the process of figuring out what happened—even if the cause isn’t yet determined. In some cases, companies will look for other suppliers if they are unable to pinpoint exactly how to prevent another contamination scenario.
A response must reassure consumers
A quick yet, thoughtful and cooperative response helps put consumers at ease, and will maintain a healthy relationship between manufacturers and suppliers. The response has to reassure consumers that the company is holding themselves to the highest regulatory standards and doing all that is necessary to provide safe food.
A key step in the response process is to engage with experts. First, there are internal experts who have information that the agency needs. Identify and connect with experts who can help inform the communications process. In large companies, identifying internal experts can be a large undertaking. Second, the agency needs to assess what information is missing and which external experts are needed in the process. A public health epidemiologist who specializes in infectious disease/food safety or a toxicologist can provide perspective to better understand the situation and help guide the response.
Food companies have to get ahead of the story to control the narrative, which avoids advocacy groups or media from spinning it out of control.
After it’s over, then what?
Food companies must take a long-range view on food safety. Food safety is table stakes with consumers. If a company cannot provide safe food, it has no future. A reputation management plan has to be in place to create a story on food safety that is intertwined and insinuated throughout consumer and stakeholder communications.
Food safety is not a one-time issue to manage. Some companies are putting food safety officers in place to ensure that the right processes and procedures are being carried out to produce safe food. Food scientists are being brought in to help companies prepare and manage food safety operations.
As the food safety reputation management plan is taking shape, executives and food safety/production staff should undergo media training to be ready to speak when needed. Running them through the paces of an interview and mock crises is essential to being prepared.
Offering a proactive food safety narrative with consumer safety and food enjoyment at its heart will help regain consumer trust that will endure, even in the unlikely instance the crisis playbook has to be dusted off again.