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E. coli outbreak: communicating in a food safety crisis

E. Coli
By Ian Morris
18 June 2024
Food & Drink/FMCG
Corporate Reputation
crisis communications

A food safety crisis is the nightmare of every food or drink manufacturer, retailer or brand. In recent days, a number of food manufacturers have recalled products due to fears of possible contamination with E. coli, which has affected over 200 people in the UK in recent weeks - a figure expected to rise – and hospitalised over 40% of victims.

Over 60 products have now been recalled, including pre-packed sandwiches, wraps and salads sold in retailers including Asda, Aldi, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Co-op and Boots.

The urgency and gravity of food safety crises is always considerable. Public trust in the safety what we eat and drink is of paramount importance for those responsible for getting that food and drink to our mouths, and any issue that results in serious illness - or potentially worse - poses a serious reputational as well as operational challenge.

In this instance, the risk profile is high. Those worst affected by symptoms are young children, the elderly, and people with underlying conditions affecting their immune systems. Experts also believe that the outbreak is likely to be due to a food item distributed nationally, which means many more people at risk, hungry for information, worried, and potentially panicking.

The reputational risk to the many household-name retailers impacted in this case will be mitigated by their sheer numbers and absence of any direct responsibility, which will not be the case for whichever manufacturer the outbreak is eventually narrowed down to.

But regardless of blame and the specifics of this case, in serious public health situations involving food safety, reputations are always at risk. And those reputations depend not only on the food safety protocols organisations have in place and what they do to protect public health during the recall; but also on how they communicate through the crisis.

Following some key principles can help in this regard:

Don’t wait for the crisis

No organisation wants to be starting with a blank sheet of paper when disaster strikes. You must start building the case to demonstrate that you have robust food safety protocols in place and a strong record on food safety issues before you need it.

This will involve a range of preparations including putting robust protocols in place in the event of a food safety issue; identifying roles and responsibilities; and preparing consumer-ready evidence of your food safety protocols and practices.

Companies should also check their previous food safety history for previous issues. If past problems exist, then be ready to explain what has changed since to prevent them recurring - in a food safety crisis, your prior record will almost certainly be dug up again.

Plans and protocols should be refreshed and tested regularly, ideally with a crisis simulation exercise.

Don’t leave people hanging

In a serious public health incident the thirst for information will be unquenchable. Managing this is even more complex now due to the number of channels through which consumers are commenting and seeking two-way communication with food and drinks companies and brands.

You must do everything you can to be able to respond to all these enquiries as quickly as possible, otherwise you risk escalating the level of worry and annoyance and creating the impression that you are not in control of the situation or don’t care. All customer contact channels from call centres, reception desks, email inboxes and social media should be manned as fully as possible and equipped to either provide up to date information or direct people to the most reliable source of updates.

Remember all stakeholders

Several groups need to be kept informed in a food safety crisis.

Of primary concern is consumers. When there is an immediate risk to the public, consumers need to be reached using a wide variety of channels.

Staff must be kept informed, for their own knowledge but also in order that they can disseminate accurate information to customers, ensuring consistency of message.

Health authorities will play a crucial role and you need to understand which ones to engage with, from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to Food Standards Scotland (FSS), UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), Public Health Scotland, or Public Health Wales. In high-profile incidents bodies like the FSA will lead on communications and will need to be worked with collaboratively.

Media audiences will seek regular updates on your response and you will need to decide not just what messages to deliver, but how you are going to deliver them. Providing a senior spokesperson to communicate with media can help to reassure and demonstrate control of the situation.

Speed versus Accuracy

There is often a trade-off between speed and accuracy, and understanding the balance is key. Such outbreaks can take far longer to investigate than the timeframe in which the public needs to be fed information to influence how they behave and limit the damage caused. Advice on the details of the products implicated, what to do and how to minimise the risk of cross-contamination should all be delivered promptly to have maximum effect.

In crises there are often vacuums of information and even if you are not yet in possession of all the facts, avoiding that vacuum being filled by harmful and misleading information is usually worth an incomplete response.

However, while you will be under considerable pressure to respond quickly, in food safety scenarios, ensuring 100pc accuracy of what you do say is more important than ever. If you get something wrong and make it public, and are forced to issue corrections or backtrack, you will look like you don’t have the situation under control. In cases of food safety, consumers need to know they can trust you, and any sign of incompetence will be magnified and may delay your efforts to rebuild trust.

At some point in time, many food or drink companies and brands will be impacted by a food safety issue. Navigating it with their reputation intact depends on their operational protocols, but also how they explain their food safety culture and credentials; what they are doing to protect public health now; and how they will ensure the safety of their products in the future.