Avoiding Litigation by Properly Managing Food Safety Complaints

Posted in Food Recall and Crisis Counsel

In the food industry, there are a broad range of food safety and quality issues that can affect our products. Sometimes, customers complain that quality is less than adequate. In some cases, the product formulation may be less than perfect, the weights may be incorrect, the labeling could possibly be wrong or the product’s appearance just isn’t right. And, in other cases, foreign objects like shreds of plastic, metal shavings, or other contaminants can get into your products.

In some instances, offending products can also cause illness. The leading pathogen of concern in ready-to-eat-foods is usually Listeria monocytogenes. Listeriosis is a serious illness that can sometime result in very severe symptoms, and will cause death in nearly 15 percent of its victims. When dealing with raw animal products, pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 can sometime contaminate those products and cause illness. When these products become contaminated, and are not handled appropriately by the customer, the customer can get sick. The result illnesses are often marked by nausea, severe cramping, and bloody diarrhea.

Our firm regularly works with clients to resolve customer complaints and claims. Notably, these claims can occur without warning and can be relatively significant or very severe. In one case, you might receive a complaint from a customer that alleges he fed ground beef to his cat, that the cat became very sick, and that he expects your company to reimburse him for the cost of the visit to the veterinarian. In the next case, you might receive a claim from a customer who claims that she served hamburger to her daughter, that the hamburger caused her daughter to become very ill, that her daughter was admitted three weeks prior into the hospital (and is still there), and she is demanding to know what your company is will to do to resolve the claim.

In either case (and in multiple scenarios in between), it is critical to understand that the way your company handles those claims in the first few days and weeks will often make the difference between a claim that can be quickly resolved, and a claim which results in litigation. Indeed, in many cases, when a customer calls to complain, the company’s immediate and natural reaction is to become defensive and look for ways to blame the customer. Companies should do their best to this natural instinct. In most cases, your customers truly believe (even when what they are saying has no legitimate merit) that they have suffered a wrong, and they are thus a victim.

What’s notable is that, in virtually all of these cases, the claimant is not looking for anything more than a recognition by the company that what the he or she is saying is important, and that the company expresses at least some remorse. So, when you receive a claim, regardless of how illegitimate it may seem, do your best to make sure that your customer understands that you care about what happened, that you are very concerned, and that you will investigation the issue and follow-up with them.

In turn, make sure you do, in fact, get back to them and, even if the claim is completely illegitimate, in many cases offering something nominal will typically make the claim go away. If the company ignores the customer, the claimant may feel slighted and make it his or her mission to file a lawsuit and create a distraction for the company. In those cases when that occurs, the company often spends far more money attempting to resolve the illegitimate claim that it would have just treating the customer more kindly.

When such lawsuits are filed, it is never good for the bottom line or brand. Trust us; as seasoned Food Industry Lawyers, we know.  The tone that the company takes with the customer will typically make all the difference in the world.

Be sure to carefully manage your customers artfully, and in most cases their complaints will quietly fade away.