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Product Recalls - Be Prepared

30 May 2011

Twitter and social media are giving a new dimension to the way companies have to handle product recalls, writes TheMeatSite editor in chief, Chris Harris.

The immediacy of the medium and the speed with which news of food safety issues revolving around food products can spread mean that companies now have to be more aware than ever of the image they portray and the response they give to rumours allegations.

Speaking at the recent American Meat Institute Expo's education sessions in Chicago, Julie Craven, the vie president for corporate communications at Hormel Foods, said that companies now need to be prepared and should write a test plan for a recall with potential scenarios and messaging.

She said that companies should form a recall team and have a special spokesperson named and trained.

In order to put up a firewall against false accusations and potentially damaging pictures finding their way into the media and particularly the new media, she said companies need to secure all images and videos and ensure there are images available that the company is happy about to issue to the pres and media.

The plan should also be tested with a mock recall.

"At a time of a recall the demand for information is high, and the company has little control over events," said Mrs Craven.

"You need to keep careful records to be able to tell the truth, tell is all and get it out in one news cycle.

"Dragging it out is not good for the brand, the company and customer elations."

Mrs Craven said that companies should never let their key audience - customers and clients - learn about a recall through the media. She said employees need to be alerted and bosses kept informed and customer contacts told immediately.

She said that companies should issue their own press release to give the company's message and that release should include a message of regret and also show precisely what is being done.

Mrs Craven added that the company's website should be used to ensure that people are notified about the problem and now that media such as twitter are being used to spread recall news, this medium can also be used to advantage.

In large recalls it is also advisable toe employ consultants and lawyers and PR consultants to handle the wave of public and media interest that is likely to be encountered.

Bob HIbbert from K&L Gates said that as recalls in the US are technically voluntary, it is up to the company to issue the command and to follow it up.

However, he urged that it was better to build up preventative measures rather than to keep on reacting to events. This, he said, is where schemes such as HACCP come into play.

"Recalls get attention. They are the things that get into the papers," said Mr Hibbert.

"They are the things that resonate with the public, particularly where they concern allergens and pathogens."

Mr Hibbert added that the 2008 Farm Bill in the US laid down certain requirements on companies to notify and report to the Food Safety and Inspection Service if there was an incident that required a recall.

However, he added that there is a grey area in the notification of a recall because recalls have to be made when there is a risk to the consumer, but not all adulteration of a food products is necessarily a risk.

The voluntary nature of food recalls in the USD could be taken over if a clause in the Food Safety Modernisation Act comes into force specifying that recalls should become mandatory.

Mr Hibbert said the act would mandate HACCP for companies and he said that this could have significant impact on the industry.

He said that modern technology is now enabling companies to identify and report outbreaks quickly although he said there is also a concern that health inspectors could spark recalls as a precautionary measure.

This scenario could mean the lowest common denominator of concern could force a recall and this could also be affected by the blurring what is and what is not safe to eat - something that exists in a product that will not harm the consumer through correct cooking and something that makes the product unfit for consumption.

Mr Hibbert said there is a need for legal transparency in the process to recommend a recall by the authorities, so that the industry can clearly see and understand the process that in the end could cost a company a lot of money and time.

May 2011

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