Tuesday, February 3

Bracing For Aftershocks: Peanuts Cause Reactionary Communication

The epicenter of the salmonella epidemic may have originated at a Georgia processing plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), but continuing aftershocks will be felt by everyone. To date, it is linked to as many as 529 sicknesses, eight deaths, and 430 product recalls.

While new salmonella cases seem to be subsiding, public outcry continues to be on the rise. With each new aftershock, an exponentially increasing segment of the agricultural industry may be impacted. It's true. What started out as one bad processor practice is quickly escalating to encompass everything as reactionary communication becomes the new normal.

Peanut Corporation of America

After several weeks of mishandling a non-existent crisis communication plan, PCA seems to be working toward ending a self-imposed communication blackout imposed after the criminal investigation began. The Web site now offers a media inquiry number. The decision to provide a number comes after the PCA was likely prompted by what happens when reporters are provided no contact. They start speaking to everyone else.

Yesterday, the Associated Press ran a story with several quotes from former employees. One account describes managers as so concerned with the bottom line that they would allow soggy peanuts and five- or six-year-old peanuts onto the production line. Today, the Associated Press learned that the PCA processing plant in Plainview, Texas, has operated uninspected and unlicensed for years. The plant manager pushed off the communication on the corporation, where he said he sent the paperwork more than a year ago.

Lesson: Once you commit to communicate as the PCA had done, albeit unprepared, you have to remain committed.

King Nut Companies

A few weeks prior to the crisis, Kanan Enterprises, which owns King Nut and Peterson Nut Companies, was celebrating that Matthew Kanan, executive vice president of sales and marketing, was awarded one of the top 40 executives under the age of 40 in Cleveland by Crain’s Business Magazine. Today, it's fighting for its life with increasingly aggressive messages.

King Nut was originally cited as the possible source of the epidemic by the Minnesota Department of Health before the company revealed it did not manufacture its own label. On Jan. 29, the company sent a release expressing "shock and dismay at findings that report the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) knowingly released a product with potential salmonella contamination into the food supply, as released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)."

While the company distributed products under the assumption that the required safety certification was accurate and cooperated with authorities to locate the source, the message of being "only a distributor" is likely to deliver mixed results because at least some of the products carried the King Nut label. Unlike companies that received peanut ingredients or distributors who solely distribute, King Nut took on the appearance of a manufacturer by offering its own label.

Lesson: Never put your name to another person's work until you have verified the quality.

U.S. Food And Drug Administration

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration has released a recall widget to help all interested parties keep the public ahead of the curve. Since the beginning of the epidemic, it has taken a no nonsense approach in its investigation into one of the largest food recalls in history.

However, it seems investigators are not exempt from contempt. U.S. President Barack Obama said this morning he is ordering a “complete review” of the Food and Drug Administration after it failed to detect shipments of salmonella-contaminated peanut products. The Consumers Union shares the President's view.

Lesson: Don't bark too loud at the fox who ate the chicken if you were the dog responsible for the hen house.

Kellogg's And Those With Recalls

Given how many companies facing recalls made missteps (with Jenny Craig among the worst), we decided to focus on one company that is providing a near perfect model. Kellogg's was among the first to place a hold on its products and first to issue a recall.

It immediately built a recall page that addresses the situation in a non-accusatory manner, preferring to focus on providing customers the information they need, including an FAQ that covers what to do, where to seek more information, and who to contact at the company. All of the information provided is right to the point, with an emphasis on proving facts and information on consumer safety. On the rare occasion the company did offer a quote, it was were clear, empathetic, customer focused, and direct from the company president.

Lesson for everyone else: If your communication team doesn't know what it is doing, consider what the best did.

The J. M. Smucker Company And Those Without Recalls

Never underestimate the impact of a crisis. After the FDA issued a video statement that correctly stated to err on the side of caution and not eat peanut products unless you know the source, many consumers stopped buying peanut products all together, dragging companies that were not affected into the crisis.

The J. M. Smucker Company is one of several that immediately took action to ensure customers that its products are safe because it does not purchase any ingredients from Peanut Corporation of America. In addition to pop-up announcement, J. M. Smucker Company provides a link that includes all of its brands as well as a customer service number. In addition to being smart, the announcement remains balanced, devoid of any marketing messages.

Ironically, we visited several company Web sites with recalls and, unless you look in the press section, you'd never know it.

Lesson for everyone else: You don't have to be part of a crisis to be part of a crisis. Manage only what impacts you.

American Peanut Council

Ever since the American Peanut Council issued the harshest albeit correct language in a statement released on Jan. 29, it continues to draw attention. Some companies are even including Archer's quotes in their own news releases.

“This is a clear and unconscionable act by one manufacturer,” said said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council. “This act is not by any means representative of the excellent food safety practices and procedures of the U.S. peanut

The Peanut Council may not be at the heart of the crisis, but it knows it will be charged with helping clean up the mess. In addition to attempting to help association members by publishing a list of brands NOT impacted by the recall, The Peanut Council will likely face an uphill battle fending off reactionary legislation. Ironically, its communication added even more fuel to the blaze.

Lesson: Never add fuel to a fire that your industry will eventually expect you to put out.

Reactionary Communication is Not Communication.

As these aftershocks continue to rattle the nation, it might be time for someone to lend a voice of reason. If someone does not, reactionary legislation and regulations will likely impact the entire agricultural industry, all for the actions of one irresponsible company. And that could bad for all of us.


Anonymous said...

The FDA said that the Georgia plant had identified the salmonella from the beginning and knew there was a contamination problem!

Rich on 2/4/09, 11:18 AM said...

Hey Anon,

This popped up on PR Newswire today:

Statement of Peanut Corporation of America February 4, 2009

LYNCHBURG, Va., Feb. 4 /PRNewswire/ -- Peanut Corporation of America ("PCA") continues to be deeply concerned about those who have been affected by salmonella contamination in the past weeks. The product recalls issued by our company continue to expeditiously remove all potentially harmful products from the marketplace, in the best interest of the public's health and safety.

There has been a great deal of confusing and misleading information in the media. We want the public to know that there were regular visits and inspections of the Blakely facility by federal and state regulators in 2008.

Independent audit and food safety firms also conducted customary unannounced inspections of the Blakely facility in 2008. One gave the plant an overall "superior" rating, and the other rated the plant as "Meet or Exceeds audit expectations (Acceptable-Excellent)" ratings. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the ongoing investigations, we will not be able to comment further about the facts related to this matter at this time.

PCA is second to nobody in its desire to know all the facts, and our team is working day and night to recall affected products and to complete its investigation.

Website: http://www.peanutcorp.com/

While it links to their page, the statement does not appear on that page.


Rich on 2/4/09, 11:35 AM said...

As a point of clarification, the AP story mentioned in the post refers to a different plant, located in Texas, and owned by PCA. No one, that I am aware of, claimed that the Georgia plant was not inspected.

Specifically, the AP has obtained an inspection report about the Texas plant from Patrick Moore of the Department of State Health Services, which stated: “I was not aware this plant was in operation and did not know [what] type of products processed.”


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