Product recalls can cost businesses thousands if not millions of dollars in lost profits, civil damages, and, at worst, criminal action. The food industry often receives the most attention and takes the largest hit in public opinion following any recall—particularly those linked to foodborne illnesses or life-threatening ailments.
Major food companies have suffered recalls as of late, most notably Blue Bell for a minimum of eight instances of listeria-related illness and death and Sabra for a possible listeria contamination. Listeria, a deadly bacteria, threw the U.S. apple industry into a flurry of recalls, bans, and increased regulations from other countries earlier this year.
The cost for Blue Bell is estimated to be in the millions. "I would suggest this is going to cost them between $4 [million] and $10 million," Larry Keener, president and CEO of International Product Safety Consultants told The Dallas Morning News. This includes outlays related to the doubly-expanded recall itself as well as losing product sales from important venues.
Keener also said, "Blue Bell is going to spend a great deal of money to … look back at its entire manufacturing supply chain to try to get an explicit understanding of how this happened." Keener is not involved with the Blue Bell case.
About 1,600 cases of listeria are reported in the U.S. each year. The CDC reported that 13% of listeria-infected patients died in 2012, as compared to more common food-borne illnesses like salmonella, which has led to less than 1% of deaths in sickened patients, according to Fortune.
Eight listeria outbreaks have occurred since 2011, five of which have been reported since 2014, the CDC reported. However, the largest listeria outbreak in that time was one reported in 2011, which resulted in more sicknesses and deaths than the other incidents. It may seem that listeria is becoming more common, but because food-borne illnesses can be so hard to track, analyzing and comparing statistics to determine actual trends is difficult.
According to the CDC, about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths can be attributed to food-borne illnesses in the U.S. each year. Some of these cases lead to product recalls.
A look at some fundamental actions that can lessen the impact of a product recall:
1. Plan ahead—before the recall happens
Having a written recall plan has been a requirement for some time, but preparation should go further than that.
Solid, ongoing recordkeeping is a foundation of making a business run smoothly. The same goes for a recall, after which a company must submit a wealth of data to the FDA. Having a team of advisors in place before a recall begins ensures the knowledge and representation is in place to survive the recall as unscathed as possible. This might include an attorney with FDA experience, a public relations expert, a quality control employee with experience in manufacturing operations, or an employee who understands the company's methods of purchasing and distribution with suppliers, distributors, and end-users.
2. Inform the FDA
According to FDA guidelines, "Reportable Food Registry requires that firms report to FDA within 24 hours of learning that a food has a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals."
A recall submission should have the following basic information:
- Product information (including name, model, description, labeling, etc.)
- Codes/product identification numbers
- Recalling firm’s name, type, location, and contact information
- Manufacturer information
- Firm responsible for violation/problem
- Reason for the recall (detailed description, how the defect affects performance and safety of the product, etc., other proof such as sample analysis or proper labels)
- Health hazard assessment
- Volume of recalled product
- Distribution pattern
- Recall strategy
The specifics required by the FDA are much more thorough.
3. Inform employees, the sales team, supply chain
Getting employees onboard, especially the sales team, will help determine how best to address the problem and plan and disseminate the message.
The brokers, distributors, and retailers who handle and sell the products are next to be told about the product recall, as they lead directly to consumers, who must know where the potentially tainted products are being sold, the lot numbers, batch numbers or other identifying information. The message needs to ensure that consumers avoid purchasing or consuming products still sitting on shelves at home or in the store.
4. Address the problem as quickly as possible
Whether labels neglect to state the presence of allergens or a product may contain small pieces of metal (as Kraft experienced last month) or glass in baby food (recently reported by Beech-Nut Nutrition), the company needs to address the problem right away. This could mean having to pull products from retailers’ shelves. It could mean having to shut down an entire manufacturing plant, as Blue Bell had to do for its Broken Arrow, OK, plant earlier this month, where the listeria outbreak was originally reported.
5. Determine explanation for media, target consumers
A product recall can get out of hand fast, particularly once it reaches the media and word of mouth. To prevent misinformation being spread through various channels, it’s important to craft a clear and informative message. It should detail all product(s) involved, the risks involved in consumption, what the company is doing to address the problem, how consumers can contact the company. The message should also offer guidance for what they should do if they or family members have recently consumed the recalled products. The tone of the message should show sympathy for people who have been sickened. Once the message is set, it’s time to inform the masses. The PR or marketing team should draft a press release also the company should identify a spokesperson to handle media inquiries.
In addition to enabling the media to spread the message, many businesses now turn to social media for both company announcements, such as a recall, as well as a way to handle any consumer questions or complaints. Being open, honest, and available on social media channels may be crucial to surviving the recall, guiding consumer opinion, and protecting the company’s reputation.
6. Establish customer service initiatives to handle backlash and interact with consumers
In both traditional and social media, as well as any other points of contact with consumers, ensure that customers know what they need to do, such as how to report illnesses or receive rebates. Give them a way to contact customer service representatives for more information and emergency assistance, such as through the company website, email, social media, or a phone hotline. A company may devise some sort of offer to thank customers for their loyalty. Consumers tend to be forgiving, particularly to companies whose products they have purchased for many years. However, they will be less forgiving or stop buying a product if the recall is poorly handled.