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Lingering Questions in Perception of Food Safety

While the timing may have been sensitive (it was just days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks), the LA Times’ “Food Poisoning: America’s Homegrown Threat” revisited a June New York Times column comparing the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil to the number of annual deaths related to foodborne illnesses.

Both articles made particular note of improvements in preventing terrorist attacks here in the U.S. and noted little of the same in food safety.  Not emphasized in the columns are the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a buyer-led initiative to improve food safety standards on the heels of the 2006-07 spinach E.coli outbreak that is being considered for federal adoption, the Reportable Food Registry or the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.  None of these initiatives is perfect, but they are intended improvements from where we were back in 2006 when the FDA advised consumers to avoid eating spinach.

What the LA Times and New York Times did accomplish was reinforce that there’s a real food safety problem here in the U.S.  An NPR/Thomson Reuters poll this summer gives affirmation to that: 57% of consumers polled have a concern about food safety.  While that’s down from 61 percent a year ago, concerns with produce grew to 30% from 23%.

Recent statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control show 1 in 6 Americans get sick annually from the food they eat and, as both the newspaper columns highlighted, just as many deaths annually as those who died from the terror attacks:

— 48 million illnesses annually

— 128,000 hospitalizations

— 3,000 fatalities

— 31 known pathogens (most notably listeria, E.coli and Salmonella, which is the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths)

— 9.4 million illnesses (norovirus is the leading cause)

— 56,000 hospitalizations

— 1,350 fatalities

— Unknown agents

— 38.4 million illnesses

— 71,800 hospitalizations

— 1,700 fatalities

While some leaders in the food industry, regulators, consumer advocates and government push for and enact change, recent events prove the newspapers have a valid point:

2011

— Ground Turkey (Salmonella): 111 illnesses – one fatality; 31 states; 36 million pounds of turkey (fresh and frozen) recalled; two current lawsuits; one on behalf of a 10-month-old child

— Cantaloupe (Listeria): more than 50 illnesses in seven states; eight confirmed deaths; 300,000 cases shipped to 18 states

— Olive Garden (hepatitis A): One infected employee; class-action lawsuit representing more than 3,000

2010

— Sally Jackson Cheese (E.coli and Listeria): Federal warning not to consume any product; sickened eight people in four states; business shut down after 30 years of operation

— Eggs (Salmonella): More 50 million eggs nationwide; hundreds reported ill across multiple states; recall in 48 states

— Romaine lettuce (E.coli): Bagged salads; recall in 23 states; 12 people hospitalized – three with life-threatening illnesses

2009

— Peanut butter/paste: More than 700 illnesses in 43 states; 166 hospitalized; nine killed; 125 related products; FDA/Justice Department criminal investigation; one-dozen civil lawsuits; Peanut Corp. of America declared bankruptcy

The message is pretty clear to consumers: Food safety is a real – and sometimes dire – concern.  The message to companies, commodity boards and other food organizations is even clearer: Make sure you have a plan and, if you do, review and test it routinely.

Are you prepared to respond to a food safety crisis or issue?

Do you have a crisis preparedness and management plan, and when was the last time it was reviewed or tested?  Was it a soup-to-nuts test along the supply chain or limited to a few aspects? Did it include stakeholder engagement?  What did you learn and did you implement changes?

Where is it?  Is it part of the operations manual?

Does it include what keeps you up at night (your greatest risks)?

Who’s on the crisis team and what are their responsibilities?  Are they still working for the organization? In the same role?  Is there one, final decision-maker (a crisis lead) or is it by committee (pray it isn’t)?

Do you have current contacts who can help (e.g., science and academia, industry associations, regulators, government, regulators)?

Do you have an experienced crisis communications strategist to manage all points of stakeholder engagement?

Who are your spokespeople and are they trained for speaking with media in the most tense circumstances and scrutiny?

Are you equipped to handle a crisis unfolding online?  What platforms are you using?  Are you at risk for having your brand hijacked online?  Is your social media team trained for crisis situations?

Are you will to ask for forgiveness and influence change?

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Mike Rose’s communications career spans 20-plus years and a wide range of industries – agri-food, consumer products, tech, food, healthcare, law, higher education, consumer electronics and journalism.  His expertise includes strategic brand development, crisis and issue management, strategic planning, publicity and promotion, and integrated marketing communication. This piece was originally posted Sept. 22, 2011 on his blog, tossabout. Reposted with permission.

 

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