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Food-safety incidents, like fires, are never planned or expected. But being prepared could mean the difference between containing an incident to be a minor inconvenience or watching it escalate into a major sales disruption.

Marilyn Dolan, with firsthand experience in the recent spinach food-illness outbreak, knows what works when communicating with the media and public about food safety. She recently brought that knowledge to Ellensburg, Washington, where she shared crisis control and management tips with the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee, a newly formed, proactive group of tree fruit shippers in Washington and Oregon who want to be prepared for the region’ next crisis.

Communicating plainly is one of the first basics of crisis and issue management, said Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming. The alliance, headquartered in Watsonville, California, was founded after the Alar incident in 1989 as a vehicle for agriculture to better communicate its voice in the food-safety arena. The organization represents 50 members across the nation, from agricultural associations and commodity groups to individual farming companies. The Northwest Horticultural Council is a member of the alliance.

The alliance develops communication tools and potential response strategies, conducts consumer research, commissions scientific reports and analyses, and provides assistance to members in a food-safety crisis. On a daily basis, Dolan deals with issues like microbial foodborne ­illnesses, pesticide residues on food, drift from pesticide applications, and environmental and social justice aspects of farm labor.

Managing issues

Packers and growers from time to time are questioned about what has been put ‘on’ their fruit. It may be from a consumer who believes he or she had an allergic reaction or a retailer passing on the inquiry of a consumer. Being prepared may prevent something trivial from mushrooming into a serious problem.

The basics of food-safety-issue management boils down to addressing people’s concerns, Dolan explained. "Put yourself in their position. Don’t discard their concerns."

She also encouraged industry representatives to talk in the consumer’s language and not lecture. "They want to know what you’re doing about their concern. Growers are doing a lot, but you need to tell them about what you’re doing."

Dolan suggests that the industry involve third parties when they communicate on a food-safety issue, bringing in university scientists, doctors, and government regulatory officials to help explain technical aspects. "Farmers should not talk about science but talk about what they know about fruit growing."

Finally, she advises growers to personalize the issue, telling the consumer that they live in their orchards and feed their fruit to their own children. "Tell them that food safety is about your livelihood. They understand that message."

Defining a crisis

Issue management, however, is very different than crisis management, she said.

"A true crisis only occurs when intense media coverage and consumer concerns result in a direct and significant impact on sales," Dolan said. "That’s when you truly have a crisis." Monitoring the issue to assess the magnitude of attention on an issue is key.

She outlined a few questions for growers, packers, or commodity groups to ask themselves when evaluating if an incident is a crisis:

– Does the media single out your ­product?

– What is the credibility of the group that is making the claims?

– Where is the event taking place? (Media coverage will be greater if the event takes place in New York or Los Angeles compared to the Midwest.)

– What media are covering the story?

– What other stories are in the news that day that would affect the amount of play the story receives?

– Is there a group or person (e.g., a politician) that benefits?

– Is your sales desk receiving calls?

Being prepared means having a crisis plan in place. There are organizations that have food-safety experts on tap to help members put together a crisis management plan, including the United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce ­Marketing Association, and the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee.