If you work in the food industry and have not yet experienced a recall, it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Although food companies have made tremendous progress over the last few years eliminating harmful bacteria from the food supply, some pathogens Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods and E. coli O157:H7 in raw animal products remain elusive. At any time, these pathogens can result in a large-scale foodborne illness outbreak or trigger a wide-ranging product recall.
When a company’s food products are associated with an emerging outbreak or recall, the way in which the company responds will ultimately define, in most instances, whether that company survives. Too often, in the absence of advance crisis management planning, food companies react inappropriately and unable to remain business. On the other hand, when a company has a robust crisis program in place, that company can in many cases whether the storm with little or no financial consequence. Aggressive crisis management planning can also be used as an assessment tool to determine whether the company should also refine the way it operates to reduce its outbreak or recall-related exposure further.
This advice is especially true given the aggressive nature in which FDA and FSIS are now approaching regulatory enforcement. In addition to spending more time conducting inspections and performing environmental sampling inside food manufacturing facilities, the agencies are also increasing the amount (and types) of pathogen testing they are conducting at retail. With increased testing, the agencies will find more pathogens and these findings will invariably lead to more recalls.
In the event you find your company is the focus of an emerging outbreak investigation or regulatory enforcement action, having an effective crisis management plan will, in most instances, enable your company to effectively management any challenges you face. In its most basic form, an effective crisis management plan should be detailed enough to:
- Know exactly when to recall a product (or, when a recall would be ill-advises);
- In the event a decision to recall is made, effectively identify and contain the implicated products;
- Plan for and appropriately resolve recall questions from consumers and customers;
- Handle media inquiries and communications to most effectively protect your brand;
- Navigate insurance issues to help your company protect against the denial of coverage;
- Identify potentially implicated supplier ingredients and provide notice of claims;
- Source replacement raw materials;
- Manage and resolve third-party consumer and commercial claims;
- Protect internal communications with the attorney-client privilege; and
- Prepare for and appropriately manage follow-up regulatory actions in order to immunize your company from additional regulatory and litigation exposure.
Once your company’s crisis management plan is prepared, your company should train against mock outbreak and recall scenarios to ensure that, once a crisis occurs, your management team is comfortable using the plan to quickly resolve any challenge they face.
With over 15 years of experience as food industry attorneys, we have helped countless clients develop world-class crisis management programs that will make a difference in the survival of their brand. Start planning now, so that when a challenge occurs, it’s not the absence of a plan that leads to crisis.