Public health officials call a produce packer and tell them that a cluster of 60 illnesses has one thing in common—their product. Illnesses have been popping up for weeks, entered into state and national databases, and after a couple of rounds of interviews with the victims (some still hospitalized), statistics and epidemiology point to the packer as the source.

The investigators are on their way to the facility; they would like to see how clean and sanitized the packing lines are, how well the packer’s dump tank chlorinator is working and analyze all transaction documents to determine where all incoming product came from and where it all went. There are sick children, chatter on Twitter, press inquiries and angry customers looking for refunds. Additionally, all of this happens within 24 hours of the initial call. Within 3 days, the number of linked illnesses triples, lawsuits have been filed and the commodity has become the punch line in late-night talk show monologues.

The producer may have employed Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and passed their third-party audits; however, the business will still lose market share, as will others that produce and sell similar products. At this point, the goal is to minimize losses and then capitalize on the media attention. The heat of a crisis is a lousy time to figure out how to manage the fallout.

In the Midst of Crisis
Nationally, foodborne disease causes an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually, with U.S. economic costs estimated at $152 billion to $1.4 trillion every year.[1–3] An increasing number of these illnesses are associated with fresh fruits and vegetables. An analysis of outbreaks from 1990 to 2003 found that 12 percent of outbreaks and 20 percent of outbreak-related illnesses were associated with produce.[4,5] Once a product is implicated in an outbreak, all growers are affected, although the contaminated product may have come from one grower in a different locale.

In 2008, tomato growers, wholesalers and retailers in Florida lost an estimated $250 million when they could not sell their product after an investigation of a possible Salmonella spp. outbreak linked to their product, resulting in a national health advisory.[6] Consumer confidence in the safety of tomato products eroded, while food safety practices on farms and throughout the supply chain were called into question. Tomato producers across North America found themselves answering questions about growing conditions, the safety of inputs handling and distribution of products—even though the investigation eventually pointed to imported serrano peppers as the source.

Crisis management within the food industry has four phases, which are described in detail below.

Prevention: Employing a good food safety culture, including staying current on risk factors

GAPs, Good Manufacturing Practices, prerequisite programs and regulations provide the foundation for producing food safety, but when an outbreak happens, following industry best practices and standards is the minimum that buyers expect. These are must-haves. Companies that integrate food safety into their values—from the chief executive officer to the sanitation staff—create positive food safety cultures, which is how an organization or group approaches food safety risks, in thought and in behavior, and is a component of a larger organizational culture.[7] Creating a positive culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems. Owners and operators need to know the risks associated with their products and how to manage those risks. Having technical staff knowledgeable about emerging food safety risks and conducting ongoing evaluations of procedures, supplier requirements and frontline staff practices provide necessary foundations for a good food safety culture. Steps taken during preparation also demonstrate that the business was taking steps to reduce risk and answer potential questions like: Did the company require anything from suppliers with respect to microbiological or other food safety assurances? Did they learn from any deficiencies pointed out through audits? What did they do to let their customers know about any potential problems when they arose?

Preparation: Proactively planning for a problem and monitoring public discussion of risk

Crises will happen. Companies that understand this and are prepared to deal with them will survive. Those who are not risk losing their market—and often do. While proactively managing microbiological risk, organizations with a strong culture of food safety also anticipate that outbreaks of foodborne illness may occur despite the use of sound food safety systems. Industries strong in crisis management, including information sharing, monitoring and reactive crisis communication skills, can drastically reduce the impact of deleterious and harmful media if an outbreak arises.[8] Being prepared to speak openly about risk reduction strategies and demonstrating risk management practices can reduce financial impacts and rebuild public trust quicker than if a firm/industry had not planned.[9]

Management: Implementing the plan using multiple messages and media

Recent foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. have also stimulated blogging by consumers and others on food safety issues. Producers, processors, retailers and regulators of agricultural commodities must now pay particular attention to evolving discussion and engage in the public discussion while the crisis is occurring. A firm or industry that is not forthcoming with information of who knew what, when and what decisions were made sets itself up for loss of trust because media and Internet discussion goes toward these questions. During a crisis, it is necessary for a company or industry to talk about the science, discuss risks and tell an interested public about what is known, what is unknown and upon what evidence decisions are made. Being available and understanding how media functions are also necessary skills for food industry members. Without recognizing deadlines or telling succinct stories of risk management, individuals risk the chance that others will fill the information void with misinformation.

Recovery: Reassessing risk exposure and telling the story of changes

A firm employing the best crisis management practices starts the recovery phase as soon as the problem emerges. Publicly, producers must address the problem, apologize to affected individuals and reach out to the media about risk reduction changes. It is best to establish a dialogue with groups to demonstrate the organization’s openness and commitment to public safety and health. Internally, a firm plans for reentry to the market, logistics and how new risk management strategies will influence other business activities. If there was media attention around the crisis event, the 1-year anniversary will often spur further coverage. An organization must be able to demonstrate that they have learned something in response and assess internally whether the same risks to public health exist by asking, “Would we have the outbreak again today?”

Preparation Essentials
Crisis management and communication are not readily learned in a classroom. These skills need to be honed by observing where others have been successful or failed. Testing crisis management plans by running regular simulations can sharpen responses and expose gaps in a food safety management system.

Companies repeatedly fall into certain pitfalls during a crisis, usually surrounding a statement of “we’ve done the same thing for X years and we’ve never had a problem.” Or “we follow the strictest government regulations.” Stating that any decision is based on science/evidence/facts is never enough—the data need to be communicated in an open and transparent way. Consumers will rightly react based on the information available. Food production politics and emerging communication technology (like the ubiquity of smartphones) affect how crises evolve. Those who have adapted and embraced social media as an engagement tool (not just a place to put out press releases) are current. However, some other tool will ease communication and take off like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Businesses that know where people are already talking about their products and actively converse with them will know where to go to listen and connect when a crisis hits.

Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, food safety extension specialist, in the department of 4-H youth development and family & consumer sciences at North Carolina State University.

Audrey Kreske, Ph.D., is an extension associate in the department of 4-H youth development and family & consumer sciences at North Carolina State University.

Doug Powell, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of diagnostic medicine/pathobiology at Kansas State University.

1. Roberts, T. 2007. WTP Estimates of the societal costs of U.S. foodborne illness. Am J Ag Econ 89:1183–1188.

2. Scallan, E., R. Hoekstra, F. Angulo, R. Tauxe, M.-A. Widdowson, S. Roy, J. Jones and P. Griffin. 2011. Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—Major pathogens. Emerg Infect Dis 17:7–15.

5. Lynch, M., R. Tauxe and C. Hedberg. 2009. The growing burden of foodborne outbreaks due to contaminated fresh produce: risks and opportunities. Epidemiol Infect 137:307–315.

7. Yiannas, F. 2009. Food safety culture: Creating a behavior-based food safety management system. New York: Springer Science.

8. Jacob, C., C. Lok, K. Morley and D. Powell. 2011. Government management of two media-facilitated crises involving dioxin contamination of food. Public Understand Sci 20:261–269. 

9. Hrudey, S. 1997. Dioxins or chemical stigmata. In Mad cows and mother’s milk: The perils of poor risk communication, eds. D. Powell and W. Leiss. Quebec City, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.