In crisis management we look at crisis vulnerabilities. Taco Bell in the New York area just experienced a nightmare that faces almost everyone in the food business: an E. coli outbreak.
The news (here as reported in a Bulldog report) focuses on how quickly Taco Bell was able to re-open all but one of the nine stores they closed after more than 25 confirmed cases of the illness were discovered. This is good news from a crisis management perspective–interesting too because it appears the investigation is still going on.
The question for the millions of food suppliers who could experience an E. coli outbreak, is how prepared are you to communicate. This story got on the front page of the NYT. Potentially thousands of customers, including critical customers in distribution chains could be greatly affected if food you produce, process, distribute or deliver to consumers is suspected (not even proven, but suspected) of being infected. That means that everyone of these people need to be prepared to deal with the instant news world or face the consequences of failure to communicate quickly and accurately.
My brother is the manager of a regional county fair. Everyone of the people in leadership in fairs across the country worry about E. coli, in part because of the high level of potential exposure of children to animal feces. Plus all the food eaten at fairs. But, are regional and local fairs adequately prepared to deal with both the media scrutiny and the flood of fair visitors who will hit their websites and be expecting direct information from them? Their future may very well depend on that preparation.
Ad Age magazine reports the spinach industry is planning on spending a bunch of money trying to rescue the $300 million dollar industry. Already there are reports of farmers near Salinas, CA having to plow their spinach crops into the ground because of the FDA ban and collapse of demand following the e.coli outbreak.
E.coli is dangerous and all precautions should be taken. But e.coli doesn’t come from spinach. I won’t mention where I understand it comes from nor will I speculate on how it got on organic spinach from a healthy sounding brand like “Earthbound.” Seems to me the most important thing is to help consumers understand how that nasty stuff got on perfectly good stuff and what those involved in the processing are doing to make certain it doesn’t happen again.
The article references the Odwalla e.coli problem and steps taken after that. I haven’t studied it but it seems to me Odwalla is one of those few major reputation/safety crises that turned out pretty good for the company. Very appropriate to have the PR manager from Edelman invovled in that commenting on this situation–and his comments are right on target.
What I find interesting about this situation is the possible impact on “organic.” Seems to me people pay a lot more for stuff labeled organic than typically can be justified by the benefit, but that is only my perception. But if they are doing that for safety reason, what impact will this have. Sure, it has nothing to do with the organic categorization of the product, or does it. After all, if they don’t use commercial fertilizer, what do they use to fertilize organic spinach. And where does e.coli come from again?
Whatever, explantion is needed to reduce impact not just on spinach but on the organic labeling.