The recent announcement that a product recall cost Produce Investments plc almost £600,000 serves not just to highlight the sheer cost of an occurrence of this kind but also serves as a reminder to take the necessary precautions to get prepared
Every year, the Food Standards Agency lists hundreds of product recalls. In 2015 there were over 1,000 recalls, and so far in 2016 more than 70 recalls have been made. Reasons for product recalls include contamination and the presence of bacteria.
The risk is ever present and no food company can ever be exempt from the chance that it may occur. Fruit and vegetables are often involved. It may be in relation to prepared food or as purely fresh produce. Among recent recalls were thousands of yoghurts supplied by Yeo Valley to Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Tesco and the Co-Op stores when the fruit conserve was contaminated with pieces of rubber.
Other examples of recent recalls include vegetable burgers that might have contained pieces of plastic and cherry cordial due to fermentation in the bottle. News of a recall may not immediately seem involve a fresh produce company, just the company which has manufactured the food. The issue arises once the cause of the contamination is involved. Full traceability is essential for all food products, and this may lead back to the fresh produce supplier.
Cost and confidence
Produce Investments plc is the parent company of both Swancote Foods and Greenvale AP – one of the UK’s largest fresh potato suppliers. The company is involved in all aspects of the potato growing sector, from research and breeding to packing and processing. In 2015, failure of a potato-blanching machine led to small bits of metal contaminating a wide range of potato products including potato salad and ready meals. This resulted in the issuing of a mass product recall notice.
Rapid action was needed to maintain product confidence. Swancote Foods worked with its customers to determine the full facts and to resolve the issue, thus maintaining high standards of food safety and traceability. Changes had to be made in a number of manufacturing processes.
Recovering from incidents of this kind takes time. So when group financial results were announced a year later, group CEO Angus Armstrong said that the company was still “working closely with our affected customers to restore full supply and regain confidence”.
For companies the issue of product recall is more than just the fact that costs are incurred recalling large quantities of product. Refunds have to be provided for affected consumers, and large-scale investigations have to be undertaken to identify and deal with the problem.
Social media effect
The prevalence of social media means that word about issues of this kind spread rapidly as consumers put information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. For example in March this year, consumer, Sarah Quick, found a dead maggot inside a red seedless grape she had just cut up for her 18-month-old daughter. Apart from complaining to Asda, she posted a warning on Facebook that was quickly shared 40,000 times. The story also made the news pages of the Daily Mirror. Although this situation did not cause a product recall, it illustrates the way in which a bad news story can go viral.
Making the right moves
The key to surviving a product recall is to have procedures in place, and to react swiftly. “If something does go wrong, the key is not to panic,” says Mike Law, food law consultant at FoodChainID Europe Ltd. “When a crisis hits, first establish what has gone wrong – is it a safety issue or a quality issue? Or both?
“Once you have gathered all the evidence to help establish what kind of measures need to be put in place – have there been any complaints or are there lab results to verify this? The next step is to assemble the best people to take on the task. This could include technical, senior management, HR and logistics [staff] as well as your communications team. It is important at this stage to give clear task allocations and ensure everyone knows their role.
“You are likely to face criticism and questioning, which may be through official news channels or from customers on social media. It is important to cover this critical area of brand reputation during a crisis, as well as dealing with any legal and technical implications. Once you have these plans in place, it will be over to you to manage the crisis in a planned and orderly way to minimise the risk both to your reputation and business.”
Savvy companies work on the basis that an incident will occur at some point, and set out to have plans in place ready to be rolled out instantly. FoodChain Europe undertakes food incident training programmes that can help.
Stephanie Whitmore, director of Leapfrog PR points out that communication is absolutely vital. “Reputation management has never been more important for the food industry than it is today,” says Whitmore. “It is the element of surprise, loss of control and lack of information which can really fuel a crisis and result in brand and individual reputation damage. There can be all kinds of crises from self-inflicted (remember Gerald Ratner?) to a malicious attack such as product contamination or organised attack such as food fraud, a smouldering situation or natural disaster.
“Undertake a crisis simulation – this will mean you can put your plan into action and be prepared for any real life twists. Effective reputation management in a crisis means reducing the fuel to feed the fire. Planning will reduce the element of surprise and uncertainty, enabling decisions to be made quickly. Making sure that planned information is available to the press is essential – if there is a vacuum, the news media will fill it if you don’t.
“Remember that planning ahead is good business practice. Burying your head in the sand and believing that it will never happen to you is not an option.”