Blue Bell’s Criminal Investigation–add food producer to “go to jail jobs”

Years ago a friend who was a refinery plant manager talked to me about how many jobs in the oil industry were now “go to jail jobs.” That is, if something seriously went wrong, you could go to jail simply because of the position you held.

Indeed, one client I worked with, a senior manager of a pipeline company, did go to jail for six months as well as several of his employees, despite the fact that the accident involved was the result of an incredibly complex chain of circumstances many of which they had no control over.

Perhaps this can be justified given the seriousness of the responsibility of some of these jobs. But we seem to have lost the idea that accidents can happen and while you can almost always find some action that would have prevented it from happening, that does not necessarily equate to negligence. Unless you are a plaintiff’s attorney of course.

Now, those involved in food production also have go to jail jobs it seems. The Department of Justice has begun a criminal investigation of Blue Bell, involved in a listeria outbreak earlier this year.

Bill Marler, likely the most prominent food plaintiff’s attorney in the nation, seems to be chortling a bit over this investigation–and not just because he predicted it.

He helpfully explains how a company executive like Mr. Kruse of Blue Bell can be subject to criminal charges and possible jail time: a food product is deemed “adulterated” if the food was “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.” A food product is also considered “adulterated” if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.

He concludes: the legal jargon aside, if you are a producer of food and knowingly or not [emphasis mine] sell adulterated food, you can (and should) face fines and jail time.

In other words, as I understand it, if anything gets into a processing or storage facility that could be “injurious to health” then the senior executives involved in that facility can (and according to Marler) should go to jail.

That is absolutely chilling to me, and I’m not a food producer. But I am aware, as I think most are, that there are a range of bad things that can happen even in the most cautious and responsible operation. My friend talking to me about go to jail jobs in the oil industry commented about how this had a negative impact on the industry attracting top talent, thereby of course, increasing the cost of recruiting and holding talent. If Mr. Kruse goes to jail without overwhelming evidence that he was outrageously negligent or created an atmosphere of carelessness, in other words, if this is a show trial the impact on food production could be significant.

Chipotle’s recovery–a case study either way

Chipotle is in the midst of a do or die crisis–well, maybe not die but suffer a long, painful recovery. I’m very curious how this will play out. How will they attempt to recover their reputation and more than that, their loyal fan base.

That is one thing I see as a real problem for them and for any company that attempts what I called earlier a holier-than-thou branding. This kind of intense brand-based loyalty, like Apple or maybe GoPro or even Starbucks, is based in part on a perceived alignment of personal values. Apple’s values are still linked in many ways to the 184 ad that set the tone for the company even though it is likely that few current Apple buyers have ever even seen the ad.

Chipotle was working hard to tie in to the healthy food values of the majority of Millenials and had earned high marks and strong loyalty based on those values–even though many of their “integrity” claims such as not using GMOs were questionable. While many believe (without much factual basis in my humble opinion) that the buy local and other integrity strategies results in healthier food, Chipotle is causing some deep questioning of that. Truth is, our traditional food production system is subject to the highest levels of scrutiny and inspection. Farmer’s market food isn’t. That’s an uncomfortable truth to many promoting healthy foods.

Bloomberg’s unfortunate and patently unfair cover art (with surprised fellow in a serious hazardous material suit) highlights the essential problem here and that problem goes far beyond Chipotle. Every company looking to tie into the deep social values of its target audience has to look carefully at this. BP’s Beyond Petroleum enabled the oil company haters to take full advantage of the truth of BP: it is an oil company above all. The alternative energy projects it was pursuing were dancing around the edges and certainly never were core to what the company was doing.

Bloomberg talks of the “smug” marketing of Chipotle:

For a long time, smug worked pretty well for Chipotle Mexican Grill. It’s grown into a chain of more than 1,900 locations, thanks in part to marketing—including short animated films about the evils of industrial agriculture—that reminds customers that its fresh ingredients and naturally raised meat are better than rivals’ and better for the world. The implication: If you eat Chipotle, you’re doing the right thing, and maybe you’re better, too. It helped the company, charging about $7 for a burrito, reach a market valuation of nearly $24 billion. Its executives seemed to have done the impossible and made a national fast-food chain feel healthy.

That smugness bugged me for a long time, but then, I’m a strong defender of family farming and that includes the kind of products and processes that Chipotle’s marketing was intended to defame. But the point is a warning to any company looking to tie into emotionally laden social values. As Chipotle showed, the rewards can be great. As Chipotle also showed, the risk reward ratio works here as well. The risk is also great.

Chipotle–what does this mean for “holier than thou” branding?

I might as well add my thoughts to the conversation around Chipotle and their unfortunate situation. Yesterday I drove by the Chipotle location where several of my fellow Skagitonians were sickened by e.coli–so the issue is close to home.
But what lessons are here for crisis communication?
To me the most interesting question is not about how Chipotle is responding to the crisis, but how branding affects reputation. Chipotle has been exceptionally aggressive in attempting to position itself against competitors as a healthier provider of food. It’s touted its organic and non-GMO credentials communicating that Chipotle food is better for you than what you get at other restaurants. It reminds me a bit of BP with their “Beyond Petroleum” branding. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the realities of both BP and Chipotle were that they still had to (and have to) deal with the fact that BP is mostly an oil company and Chipotle is a fast food company dealing with the normal issues of sourcing and handling food. The truth is, and the Chipotle situation may help people understand this better, is that some supposedly healthier food sources may not be subject to the same inspection and government scrutiny as the traditional sources. Just like bottled water, unlike tap water, is not subject to government testing for safety. I suspect that the effort to buy local and as direct from the farmer as possible may be part of the problem as wholesome and preferable as that may seem.
My thought is that any brand looking to establish a kind of “holier-than-thou” brand strategy, one that attempts to grab a moral high ground, needs to consider what happens to their brand when things go wrong. Starbucks is an example in trying to establish itself at the forefront of social changes. Certainly the unfortunate CEO of the Seattle company who sought to address the real concern about wage equality by giving everyone a $70,000 per year salary has found there are some problems with that approach.
Chipotle is also an innocent victim of the cascading effect that we teach in crisis management. “Bad things tend to come in threes,” is the old saying. But this is especially true in crisis management because of the normal way the media covers these things. When something bad happens they immediately look at the record (easy these days with the internet) and try to show a pattern. Then, with media and public attention focused on the company, anything else that happens in that window of focus, immediately becomes part of the story and contributes to the narrative of bad behavior. In Chipotle’s case, the novovirus sickness in Boston has apparently nothing to do with the e.coli illness on the West Coast, but because they both involve food related illnesses and Chipotle they are linked. One plus one becomes a lot more than two.
No doubt Chipotle has its branding and reputation work cut out for it. They do need to show more empathy for those who became ill, need to communicate (which they have) what they are doing to ensure food safety, and I would say they should also say they are doing a top-level review of food sourcing and inspection protocols. I think rather than talking much about organics and GMOs they are going to have to be talking about ensuring protection from pathogens–a much more serious food safety and health issue.