In the highly-competitive food industry, a recall can hurt a company's brand and cause it to cede significant market share to its rivals — leading it to lose out on potentially millions of dollars in sales.
The massive size of today’s food industry makes contamination from bacteria such as E. coli or allergens like peanuts all but inevitable for producers. In order to minimize the chance of a mistake, food and beverage manufacturers have heavily invested in preventative safety measures and recall response plans. But these efforts can only do so much to prevent a recall — a reality several major brands learned the hard way during the last year.
E. coli outbreak hits SoyNut Butter, but agencies stay quiet
I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter suffered an E. coli contamination earlier this year. While the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out warnings about the product on March 1, the CDC did not initially reveal which states were impacted by the outbreak.
The company also claimed it wasn’t immediately notified of its connection to the disease.
Food industry players and consumers wondered why health agencies were waiting to give specifics about which products were affected, especially since the sandwich spread is eaten by many children as a peanut butter alternative. Despite the health risks, the FDA stated it would not release the names of grocery stores that sold the product because it was "confidential commercial information” that was exempt from disclosure.
Critics say the FDA’s initial refusal to share news further endangered public health. In total, 29 people across 12 states were sickened by the outbreak — 14 of whom were children.
“Industry argues that they don’t want to turn over who they sell to, because competition will know and try to undercut them,” food safety lawyer Bill Marler told The Washington Post. “That’s all well and good under normal circumstances. But those rules should not and do not apply to a product that could cause people to become ill.”
Where are they now:
The FDA eventually named Kentucky-based Dixie Dew Products, which had supplied I.M. Healthy with soy paste that had been contaminated with E. coli, as the source of the contamination. Still, because of the secrecy that shrouded much of the recall, and the fact that so many children were exposed to the product — one suffered temporary paralysis — it's likely that I.M Healthy will still carry the brunt of consumer backlash. The CDC still recommends that consumers, childcare centers and schools stay away from I.M Healthy SoyNut butter regardless of the date purchased or the date listed on the container.
Back-to-back listeria recalls melt Blue Bell’s reputation
Few companies have had as tumultuous a history with recalls as Blue Bell.
In what month, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control found listeria in Blue Bell ice cream during a routine product sampling at a distribution center in the state. This discovery eventually snowballed into a recall of the company’s entire inventory and a complete shutdown of all three of its plants, leading to a 37% reduction of Blue Bell’s workforce. The ordeal was a PR nightmare, and CEO Paul Kruse released a video publicly apologizing for the contamination.
"We’re committed to fixing the problem… we are going to get it right,” Kruse said in the video.
The contamination was linked to several illnesses, including three deaths.
Blue Bell was only just beginning to restart production after this fiasco when another problem was uncovered. The beloved ice cream maker voluntarily recalled select product varieties after a chocolate chip cookie dough ingredient, made by its third-party supplier, Aspen Hills, tested positive for listeria. Determined to salvage its reputation, Blue Bell blamed Aspen Hills for the outbreak, but the supplier claimed the cookie dough had been tested and was found clear of listeria. It soon became evident Aspen Hills was the culprit when four other brands the company supplied the cookie dough to announced their own listeria recalls.
After an FDA investigation, listeria was found in 10 different places in the supplier’s factory. The FDA wrote the cookie dough manufacturer a scathing letter accusing it of “not taking aggressive action" after inspectors found rusty equipment, ingredients spilled on the floor and tracked through the factory and other evidence of company negligence.
Where are they now:
After the recall, Blue Bell cleaned its facilities extensively before restarting production. The ice cream maker also implemented food safety procedures that required all products to test clean before leaving the factory. It reintroduced its products in Arizona and Colorado last month. The recall cost the ice cream maker dearly — 2016 sales came in at $455 million, just over half of its 2014 total — and the fallout of the listeria crisis continues to plague the company. Just a few weeks ago, a Texas couple filed a lawsuit alleging that the husband had ingested listeria while eating Blue Bell ice cream in 2015. The pair is demanding at least $200,000 in damages, the latest in a string of suits against the company.
General Mills gets a raw deal over raw flour consumption
Food manufacturers invest heavily in preventative food safety measures, but this particular recall raises an interesting question: To what degree do brands need to advertise food safety risks on product packaging?
General Mills had to recall three brands of flour, totaling about 10 million pounds, when consumers were sickened last year after eating products containing the ingredient that was contaminated with E. coli. Many of the victims had ingested the tainted flour when they ate raw dough or batter, which can contain pathogens. If the dough and batter mixtures had been cooked in the oven, the heat most likely would have killed off any contaminants.
“As a leading provider of flour for 150 years, we felt it was important to not only recall the product and replace it for consumers if there was any doubt, but also to take this opportunity to remind our consumers how to safely handle flour,” Liz Nordlie, president of General Mills Baking division, said in a company release following the outbreak.
The popularity of cookie dough and other raw baking products as snacks should prompt manufacturers like General Mills to educate their consumers about the risks of raw flour. This can be done on product packaging and through brand-sponsored recipes advertised on social media pages or on in-store signage.
The FDA also has started a campaign warning consumers about the dangers of consuming raw flour, but it may be wise for flour manufacturers to form a consumer education campaign in order to prevent similar outbreaks. General Mills’ recall should be incentive enough to be proactive — the contaminated flour affected other products in the company’s portfolio like Betty Crocker cake mixes. The outbreak spread across the United States and overseas to China.
Where are they now:
The flour recall eventually expanded to several additional companies that sourced their flour from General Mills, including Clear Springs Foods' breaded trout product. The company likely suffered a fair amount of consumer distrust, as General Mills' name was brought back into the spotlight with the news of each company that was affected by the outbreak. Still, General Mills created a dedicated page on its website to provide its consumers with up-to-date information on the brands impacted by the recall, warnings against eating uncooked dough and contact information for consumer relations.
Soylent plays the blame game on social media
When food safety concerns arise, consumers typically report their concerns to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — not so for Soylent. When select customers suffered gastrointestinal distress after eating Soylent’s meal replacement bars, they took to Reddit and Twitter to voice their complaints. The company dealt with consumers directly on these social media platforms. Soylent stopped all sales of its food bars and recalled products already on the market, asking people to throw them out while they conducted their own internal investigation.
It’s atypical for a development as serious and expensive as a product recall to arise from this kind of consumer communication. As more consumers talk online, this voluntary recall could foreshadow how brands will respond to outbreaks in the digital age. Recalls can shake confidence in a brand, but consumers are much more likely to be forgiving if food safety concerns are addressed quickly and honestly. Though unconventional, social media provides a unique level of transparency that consumers crave, especially when their safety is on the line.
After checks for pathogens, toxins and other contamination came back negative, the company tested to see if food intolerance was the root of consumer sickness. It was unlikely consumers were allergic to the food because many people who had gotten sick had eaten similar Soylent products in the past without issue.
Finally, Soylent pointed the finger at algal flour supplied by ingredient maker TerraVia, and announced the ingredient would not be included in future formulations of its drink powders and snack bars. TerraVia’s stock dropped 8% after Soylent allegations. TerraVia, on the other hand, vehemently held the algal flour was safe for consumption.
"Mark Brooks, a senior vice president at TerraVia, said ... that Soylent products contain several known irritants, such as soy protein isolate and glycerin, that can cause symptoms similar to those reported by the startup’s customers," Blomberg reported.
Some industry players felt Soylent was leveraging algal flour as a scapegoat in order to win back consumer trust. TerraVia certainly believed this, and retaliated by immediately ending its business relationship with Soylent. "TerraVia’s algal flour has been used in more than 20 million servings of products and has never been shown to be the cause of adverse reactions,” the company said in a release.
It will be interesting to see whether this unorthodox recall and PR strategy pays off for Soylent in the long-term. The company replaced algal flour with high-oleric sunflower oil in its new beverages and reformulated food bars, so it will only be a matter of time before it — and consumers — knows whether algal flour was the true cause of consumer illness.
Where are they now:
Since the recall, Soylent has introduced new product innovations to create buzz around the company name and make its nutrient-packed formulas more palatable to the average consumer. The company debuted two new RTD drink flavors, Nectar and Cacao, in January of this year, and partnered with creative agency Widen+Kennedy to develop a tech-centric marketing strategy that appeals to the company’s fan base. The new campaign features the brand’s new spokesperson, “Trish”, an artificially intelligent robot that educates consumers about the nutrition of Soylent products.