FOCUS ON TRACEABILITY
By Hinda Mitchell
Communicating During and
Through a Food Recall
Ground beef. Cantaloupe. Bagged spinach. And eggs…oh, yes…eggs. The news today is replete with stories of food recalls, but perhaps none more visible than the August 2010 Salmonella Enteritidis egg crisis that
resulted in the recall of more than one-half billion eggs
from states across the country.
Effective, responsible communication is key to maintaining trust in the food system, and a challenge for
anyone who produces food is determining a strategy for
communicating prior to, during and after a recall. So if
you’re a farmer or a food producer facing a recall—or are a
stakeholder in the food system interested in understanding more about what happens in these cases—read on to
learn more about communicating from the front lines of
the 2010 egg recall.
Get prepared. The most important thing a farm can
do right now is preparation. A recall consumes time and
resources and is not a good time to be just starting to
think about farm communications. Do you have a crisis
plan for a food recall, adulterated product or foodborne
illness outbreak? Can you trace your product one step
back and one step forward? Do you know your key media
contacts? Is your list of customers up to date and can
you reach them at any given time? Can you quickly and
effectively articulate what the food safety and disease prevention protocols are on your farm? Is someone on your
farm trained to serve as a spokesperson? If you answered
any of these questions “no,” then you’re not ready.
Know your audiences. The scope of people to whom
during a recall
you must communicate during a recall is
broad. It includes the media, consumers,
your customers, suppliers, federal regulatory agencies and other public health
authorities, your employees and local
community leaders. Each of these audiences plays an essential role in the recall
Follow the lead of federal authorities. The
federal agency leading the recall will
have specific guidelines for communications. They include everything from
what media outlets must be notified
(e.g., The Associated Press must always
be included) to what language must be
used (e.g., symptoms of the type of foodborne illness) in materials. Be flexible
and ask many questions. You should be
informed on every action being taken by
the agency, so that you are well prepared
to discuss it with others as necessary. You
are free to communicate beyond these
parameters, but all communications
must follow their lead.
Timing matters. You can’t wait forever
to let the public know—notification is
the right thing to do, and there are legal
and reporting requirements that must be
followed. More importantly, if the public
and your constituents believe you held
back information, your perceived delay
will raise questions and compromise trust.
On the flip side, ensuring information is
accurate and current also is key. Tell what
you know when you know it, and when
appropriate and necessary to do so.
Be open and transparent. The public
nature of a recall means that all information will eventually be shared publicly.
There is no benefit to a farm in being
less than forthright about what’s taking
place. Always tell the truth. Engage with
the media and with your customers.
Don’t relinquish your position as the
best source of information. You are the
expert, and you should be the first point
of contact. That’s part of demonstrating
your commitment to food safety and to
doing what’s right.