Unfortunately for your business, food recalls are a question of when, not if.

Anyone who has been through a recall, or worse, a recall associated with an outbreak, can tell you that it's rarely like the mock recall requirement of their audit. Stress and confusion results from imperfect or incomplete information, pressure from regulators and customers, and unclear decision-making processes. Learn how your company — beyond the food safety team — can more confidently handle recalls.

In a virtual town hall by the International Fresh Produce Association, industry members and crisis communications experts learned valuable tips to be prepared so you can successfully manage through a recall.

“Often, you will find yourself in a recall situation at some point over the course of your career,” pointed out session moderator Jennifer McEntire, chief food safety and regulatory officer for IFPA. “With outbreaks and recalls that expand over time, the perception is that bigger recalls are catastrophic to a company. But if you actually look at case studies of large companies, the future path of that company is not predetermined. It’s really based on how the company responds to the issue. You have a choice to make. How are you going to respond?”



As a crisis communication consultant, Amy Philpott, vice president, Watson Green LLC, explains that the communication part of a recall is so critical.

“Oftentimes what a company does or does not communicate in the first 24 hours will have a huge impact on that response,” she said. “You can have the perfect technical response to a recall. But if you can’t communicate it effectively to the audience you need to reach, you don’t get any credit. All that great work doesn’t matter.”

Cody Granneman, chief operating officer, RS Hanline, said it’s all about “not being in a silo. It really is important that everybody is on the same page. Everybody needs to be involved in communication levels. You don’t think in the moment who it is going to impact. It is so important operationally to have everybody on the same page – externally and internally.”

Jennifer Pulcipher, director of food safety and compliance, North Bay Produce, said that you expect these situations to be stressful. Having a short window is definitely most critical component.

Granneman points out that the easy part is the data. Is it a full-on recall? Is it not?

“Going through the decision process and the communication process to FDA, customer. There is so much going on there,” he said. “It is a lot easier now, having this plan laid out. It is nice to go to your playbook. Going by the seat of your pants can get ugly pretty quick.”


Economic impact

A crisis may arise as a result of a major outbreak of foodborne illness, an incident with an undeclared allergen, regulatory action, or intentional tampering. Even a food recall can negatively impact a business.

These events may have a significant economic impact – resulting in a loss of sales, destruction of product, adverse media/social media exposure, temporary or permanent closure, increased scrutiny by regulators, and prosecution and lawsuits.

They may also have long term effects on consumer confidence, create issues with market access, and ultimately challenge the viability of a business.

What does crisis management involve?

Crisis management planning starts with the establishment of a crisis management team. The team comprises personnel required to manage the crisis, from senior management to production personnel, as well as communication experts. Often external communication expertise is engaged.

The next task is to identify all possible crisis scenarios, followed by the preparation of responses and procedures to deal with these situations – ensuring the business is prepared to take prompt action to manage sudden and unexpected incidents.


Components of a crisis management plan

The plan establishes roles and responsibilities as well as the circumstances that would trigger the coming together of the crisis management team.

There are various configurations for crisis management plans, but all contain essential elements including: risk assessment, an activation protocol, a chain of command, action plans, and internal and external communication programs. They also address resource requirements, staff training, and a post-incident review process.

The plan can be divided into three phases:

  • Pre-crisis planning
  • Crisis response
  • Post-crisis recovery

Exercises which regularly practice crisis scenarios immerse the team in the realities of a crisis and reinforce an up-to-date crisis management plan. They ensure awareness of potential and evolving threats, guide strategies to diminish their impact, and drive a roadmap for recovery.

Crisis management plan:

  • What could go wrong?
  • What is the risk to consumers, community, our team, and the brand?
  • Who needs to be on the crisis team?
  • What experts need to be involved?
  • Who needs to be informed – what is the communication plan?
  • How do we minimize business disruption and resume operations?
  • Communication plan

Strategic and effective communication can assist a business during a crisis. It requires experience in handling the media, good judgement, and authority. Poor communication can have damaging effects on a business and undermine consumer confidence.

Communication is best handled by partnering with media expertise and responding quickly, honestly, transparently, and co-operatively to manage a crisis. The key is to be up-front, authentic, and accessible.

The goal of food businesses is that they are not exposed by a crisis or incident that damages their reputation. A comprehensive and action-oriented crisis management plan supports businesses to weather such a storm with decreased consequences.

Failure to plan is both careless and inexcusable.