Volume 4 | Issue 3 | Year 2008

Lawmakers and regulators are responding to 2007’s “Year of the Recall” with fervor – floating ideas that range from a satellite Food and Drug Administration office in China to more than doubling the frequency of FDA food inspections.
This flurry of government activity was to be expected. After all, the FDA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department have all come under withering criticism for their alleged failure to adequately protect U.S. consumers.

Meanwhile, the food industry has its own reputation to protect. Our branded products, from beef and spinach to pet food and tuna, have taken significant hits in a year that has generated a level of anxiety among consumers not seen since the Tylenol tampering crisis of the early 1980s.


By now, food companies across the country and throughout the world are familiarizing themselves with the strictures of the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2008. Among its proposed new regulations, the bill would establish a registry of all food facilities serving U.S. customers, require companies to pay $2,000 annually to be registered with the FDA, and mandate country of origin labeling on certain food products.

While as of this writing neither the House nor Senate has voted on the legislation, food companies are already working with their lawyers and safety experts to develop the most cost-effective ways to ensure compliance. This is the prudent course of action to be sure – regardless of how strict the resulting legislation.

But readying themselves for compliance isn’t the only exercise in preparedness that food companies should be undertaking. In fact, ensuring adherence with new regulations is really only half the battle.

Food companies grappling with heightened government scrutiny should realize that with increased regulation comes greater likelihood of falling short of safety mandates. In today’s world of instantaneous communication, Internet blogs and hair-trigger litigation, that means higher risks of new media firestorms about the safety of what Americans eat and severe threats to their trusted brands.

Journalists, food-safety advocates, and other consumer groups are poised to pounce on the next perceived bad actor. That’s why it’s imperative that food companies prepare specialized communications plans designed to address the public fallout of a perceived lack of compliance. For while potential litigation and enforcement actions put millions of dollars at stake in the courtroom, the potential losses in brand credibility and trust at stake in the Court of Public Opinion are often measured hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last February’s bankruptcy of Westland/Hallmark Meat of Chino, Calif., just two weeks after its lax procedures sparked the country’s largest beef recall should serve as a cautionary tale to any company about the impact media scrutiny.


Food companies of all sizes need to anticipate their most likely crisis scenarios and ready messages and action points for each. They must identify the key players and bring them together regularly to build the trust that fast action may one day demand. They must build relationships with third-parties that can validate their messages in the media.

Here’s the key: you must be ready to saturate the marketplace with your own messages before someone else shapes the story for you. Here are a few other vital elements that should be in your plan:

Select the right messenger. The messenger can often be more important than the message itself, so choose your spokespeople wisely. During last year’s pet food crisis, Duane Ekedahl, President of the Pet Food Institute was media trained and ready to face everyone from reporters to congressional committees. For most big interviews, however, the Pet Food Institute enlisted allies such as scientists and veterinarians that lent authority to the overarching themes of the campaign. Nationally known vets like Jim Humphries appeared on national broadcasts and spoke with reporters at major newspapers throughout the crisis, calming pet owners and putting the problem in perspective. These allies were cultivated and “kept in the loop” long before they were called upon to speak publicly.

Take Responsibility. The advice here is simple: If you’ve been forced to initiate a recall or confront a product liability crisis, apologize for putting your consumers at risk and take responsibility for rectifying the situation.

Take Action. When the lead paint recalls forced the toy industry into upheaval last year, it was Hasbro – a company that had yet to initiate a single recall – that took the lead and thus differentiated itself from the competition while mitigating an industry wide crisis. Hasbro instituted its “Total Safety Program,” which became the gold standard that other companies rallied around to calm a nervous marketplace and satisfy wary regulators. Hasbro’s actions also shed light on a new reality of product safety: You must now treat a competitor’s recall as your own or risk being lumped in with the rest of the perceived bad actors.

Control the narrative. A product liability crisis is a story. More often than not, tales told in the first person paint the storyteller in a positive light because the listener identifies with the narrator. Take control of the narrative by being the first to tell it – even if a solution has yet to present itself. When the Tylenol crisis first dominated national headlines, Johnson & Johnson did not immediately know the cause of its problem, yet by pulling all Tylenol products off the shelves – and sacrificing a quarter’s worth of profits in the process – the company was the first to articulate and undertake a course of action that restored order. Eighty successive quarters of company growth and global distinction as a leader in product safety evidence the overall effectiveness of this approach.

Control the pictures. When an E. coli scare all but crippled the spinach industry, the first pictures of the story – of unskilled migrant workers working the fields and spinach being pulled from shelves – did not paint the industry in a positive light. But the industry responded, disseminating visual media of modern safety treatment facilities peopled by skilled technicians busily at work on measures to prevent contamination. Weeks later, the E. coli scare was old news and the industry was back on its feet.

Always be telling your story. Today’s corporations are guilty until proven innocent. So, make the most of every opportunity to make your case in the Court of Public Opinion. Make spokespeople available for comment to neutralize detractors. Make Internet strategy a key component to engage and inform – when necessary – the bloggers, who often drive traditional media coverage.

While the government works to re-establish its brand and its food safety bona fides, the companies it oversees must prepare themselves to do the same should a crisis emerge. Remember: The more regulatory hurdles there are to clear, the greater the chance that one may trip you up.

Gene Grabowski, a Senior Vice President at Levick Strategic Communications and 2007 winner of PRNews’ Crisis Manager of the Year Award, is a seasoned communications professional and former journalist who leads high-profile accounts for major law firms, Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, and government agencies. Email: ggrabowski@levick.com.

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