Food companies must be proactive in building and implementing crisis management plans, and be prepared to evaluate and update them, with followup training when necessary.

That’s the consensus of panelists discussing crisis plans during a virtual Food Safety Summit education workshop today, May 13.

Mary Lynn Walsh, a regional director of food safety for Sysco Corp., detailed steps to consider when crafting a crisis plan, starting with knowing what terms to use and a company-wide knowledge of what constitutes a crisis, incident or emergency.

Walsh said employees might not know about the plan or make common assumptions about it, including if it’s accessible to employees, whether co-workers know what’s in the plan, and if everyone has the same end goal.

“Everybody ultimately wants the business to be up and running, everybody ultimately wants the associates to be safe,” Walsh said, but a safety manager, facilities manager and the president of the company will have different priorities.

Companies working though crises and incidents, whether a recall, hurricane or other weather event, must revisit the issue to evaluate the response.

“We’re not going to improve for the next event unless we acknowledge what went well and what didn’t go well,” Walsh said.

The discussion outlined numerous scenarios companies have had to deal with in crisis situations, from natural disasters to the current pandemic.

“The intent here is to really create a system that could react to or manage any incident or crisis that comes at you, regardless if you’ve thought about it or not,” said Will Daniels, president of the produce division at IEH Laboratories. “It is important to be sure that you are ready to go.”

In 2006, Daniels was in charge of food safety/quality at organic salad processor Earthbound Farm when an E. coli outbreak was traced to fresh spinach processed and bagged by the company. The deadly outbreak led to the establishment of the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, which have set standards for growing and harvesting leafy greens for their members.

He said the company recalled spinach products and followed internal plans to address the outbreak.

“We had intense pressure from all of our stakeholders — the media, customers, the industry, consumers and even internally we had a lot of pressure to identify the root cause, correct things and get back to business as usual,” Daniels said. “I truly believe that without our incident management plan in place, it would have been a lot harder to get through the crisis.”

Daniels said the plans must identify the experts who can deal with specific issues, whether they are in-house or trusted partners outside of the company. The media component is a critical part of crisis management, and companies must interact with the media to tell their story, he said.

If the incident continues for several days, Daniels said it’s important to revisit communication plans to see if messaging needs to be altered or updated. The evolution of social media has created the biggest changes in crisis communications, he said, even changing what constitutes a crisis. A single consumer can amplify a bad experience into national headlines via social media.

The speed of information has increased, Daniels said, and that not only includes the truth, but rumors and speculation as well.

Glenn Stolowski, manager of retail quality assurance for Texas-based retailer H-E-B, said technology opened new avenues for communication during the pandemic.

“It’s made a big difference in how we approach training and drills during a pandemic,” he said, “because crisis situations still happen during a pandemic. We still had a hurricane hit last year in the middle of the pandemic, and we still had to work through that.”

Stolowski said it’s currently hurricane training season for H-E-B employees, an annual spring process. He said training for various crisis responses is important, and that records be kept on what training employees have completed.

“The training really helps bring home the written plan,” Stolowski said. “The written plan sometimes can be long, but the training needs to break it down into bite-size pieces for your employees. What are the top three or four things they can take away from a training, so they can apply it when a situation happens?”

Panel moderator Gary Ades, president of G&L Consulting Group LLC, noted the importance of all levels of leadership embracing crisis and incident management plans. Panelists said executives and even boards of directors are becoming more supportive of the proactive stance of having plans to respond to crises.

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