Australia’s fruit industry is currently under the dark cloud of malicious tampering. StrategicRISK spoke to The Recall Institute director Steven Hather to find out about prevention and cure in food manufacturing risk
In the case of Australia’s strawberry incident, we don’t know where in the chain that the tampering is taking place or even which incidents are the result of the original person and which are copycats. Until the police investigation is completed and we know more, we can’t talk about the specific lessons of this particular case. However, what this case does bring out is the need to improve the management of major safety-related incidents regardless of whether they are malicious or not.
Prevention is not easy
Firstly, as far as advice to risk managers goes, I think it’s important to note that it’s important to note that a malicious tampering incident is always extremely difficult to prevent.
Individuals that are determined to tamper with a product will find ways of doing it. It becomes a balance between making the product accessible and protecting it. I believe in this day and age, and it is unfortunate, but all food and consumer goods companies need some form of basic defence programs. That means at least understanding who has access to sites and products at all stages of the chain and where reasonable controls can be put in place, they should be.
The intent of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the US, for example, is to improve security at all stages of the chain. It is certainly not going to guarantee that tampering incidents are not going to happen, but it does make it harder. It also helps build awareness amongst staff about the importance of security at all stages. While they may be a little blasé about someone wandering around a site for example, increased awareness might mean they take some action.
Take back control
As far as incident management goes, the strawberry case and in fact many other previous cases of consumer safety crises, really emphasises the need for coordination of action and information and consistent communication. This applies whether we are talking about a single company having an incident or on a broader scale a whole industry such as strawberries.
In the early stages of a major incident like this, consumers will naturally have questions and concerns. “Is the product in my fridge, my pantry or the toys my children are playing with safe?” In trying to get an answer to these fundamental questions, they will go to a company’s website, Facebook page or a regulators website to get further information.
If there is nothing there, they will naturally go to various other sources - media and social media for example to get those answers. Unfortunately, this is a mish-mash of inaccuracies and speculation as well as accurate information. Confused and concerned, the consumer starts asking questions and posting negative commentary on their own sites and so escalation happens and a crisis is virtually certain.
So what should happen?
When an incident occurs, it is critical to establish a “single source of truth” fast - before misinformation starts to circulate. This lays out the facts as they are known and what is not yet known, and includes answers to frequently asked questions. Most importantly it also lets people know when updates can be expected. In this day and age, use of social media is absolutely critical. A Facebook page, a website where consumers can find this “single source of truth” and provides answers to questions will slow down the wave of confusion and let companies focus on the incident and not on trying to contain a crisis.
For a major public incident such as the strawberry incident, there needed to be a single source of truth established immediately and probably by a regulator. The parties involved - and yes there are a lot of them, needed to get together quickly, assess the risk, establish a strategy, agree on key messages, who was taking what action and then publishing what was known and not known and what consumers should be doing as result. What happened instead - and my intent is not to criticise any individual entities here but to provide some examples of why coordination is so important, is confusion and escalation.
The Strawberry Growers Association came out and said it was an ex-employee but the police said that they “didn’t agree with that at all”. The strawberry growers themselves urged consumer to continue to buy strawberries, that only the identified brands were affected and that cutting strawberries up would actually address the risk but the head of QLD Health made the statement that consumers should “just throw them all out”. The net result of all this is consumers are confused with all this conflicting information and so to be safe they just don’t buy which has been devastating to the industry.
There will undoubtedly be many more lessons coming out of the strawberry crisis and unfortunately, if we don’t learn from them, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. There are already key lessons that are fundamental to incident and product recall management and crisis prevention. When an incident occurs you either get in front of it or you let it build its own head of steam and let it spiral out of control.
For more information on the risks in the food and beverages industry, check out StrategicRISK’s Sector View, in association with AXA.