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Be ready for food crisis management, expert says

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

An expert recommends preparing for a food safety crisis before an illness outbreak or recall ever happens.

The financial implications of food safety often go unrecognized until a company is in crisis mode, according to an industry expert.

Food companies should give safety experts more decision-making power instead of walling them in a “silo,” said Melanie Neumann, chief financial officer at the Acheson Group, which consults on food safety issues.

“We’re the first line of defense of brand protection,” she said at the recent Northwest Food Processors Association conference in Portland, Ore.

Obtaining the approval of “quality assurance” employees is often an afterthought at food companies, she said.

Safety experts are thus forced into the role of naysayers and bad guys, which further marginalizes their influence, said Neumann.

Food companies should instead seek their advice prior and during the development of new products to integrate risk assessment into the process, she said.

Highly complex products that rely on rare or farflung crops can pose unforeseen hazards, she said. “You’re adding more ingredients, you’re adding risk.”

Neumann urged quality assurance employees to better explain how investment in food safety can minimize losses and improve efficiency.

Casting the role of food safety in a financial light is likely to resonate with “bean counters” and executives, she said.

“We need to understand what their playbook looks like. Steal it. Use it to your advantage,” Neumann said. “Vocabulary is half the battle.”

Managers may be more receptive to requests for extra food safety funding if a person points out the steps they’re taking at little or no cost, she said.

The price of an illness outbreak, on the other hand, can be devastating — the Topps Meat Co., for example, went out of business after a massive ground beef recall in 2007, Neumann said.

“Your brand is your biggest asset,” but it can also be a liability if tainted in the public eye, she said.

Companies should prepare template press releases and other communications before a recall or illness outbreak to avoid wasting time if a crisis occurs, she said.

Employees who handle complaints should be trained to distinguish between critical and non-critical problems, Neumann said. 

For example, they should be able to recognize serious food allergy symptoms that could affect consumers, she said. “Most of the time, they don’t say, ‘I went into anaphylactic shock.’”

Conducting annual drills to test a company’s response to a crisis will verify whether its plans will work, Neumann said.

“Make sure your process controls are effective,” she said.

The team in charge of responding to a crisis should have representatives of all the affected departments.

Members should be sure they are not sending conflicting messages to different stakeholder groups, like distributors, regulators and the media, Neumann said.

“If there’s inconsistent communication, that can also harm your brand, she said.

Some food companies are afraid of communicating through social media, she said. If they don’t want to be proactive, they should at least monitor such platforms and react to comments.

However, avoiding social media can be more damaging than opening a dialogue, Neumann said.

“Social media will engage you,” she said. “If you stay silent in social media it may hurt your brand more than if you offer some response.”


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