How to Handle Food Recalls

Aaron Blank, CEO of the Seattle PR firm, The Fearey Group, recently spoke at the Northwest Food & Beverage World in Portland, Oregon. Before speaking, he recorded a podcast with co-speakers, Josh Hedrick of Parker, Smith & Feek, and Polly Hampton of Perkins Coie on the subject of how to handle food recalls. Based on their experience in risk management, law, and PR, each expert shares the first three things they would do after a food recall. You can listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Transcription of Podcast:

Aaron Blank: I’m currently at the Northwest Food & Beverage World in Portland, Oregon, where it’s the annual conference for all of the food processors of the Pacific Northwest. Today, I’m speaking with two folks: Josh Hedrick from with Parker, Smith & Feek, he’s a principal there, and Polly Hampton of the Portland office of Perkins Coie, both specializing in food safety. I’m doing this podcast just to recap our conversation; we are speaking this afternoon about food risk assessment and food safety culture, so I’ve asked both Polly and Josh for three things they would do, from their point of view, after a food product safety recall. So Josh, first tell me in 10 seconds, what is Parker Smith and Feek?

Josh Hedrick: Thanks, Aaron. Parker, Smith & Feek is a risk management commercial insurance broker; we specialize in product recall and contamination.

Aaron Blank: In the case of what we’re talking about today, if one of your clients had a product recall, what would be the three steps they should take for that?

Josh Hedrick: Step one should really be going to your product recall manual—your playbook. Hopefully that’s in place, because that’s really going to be, if you’ve gone through a mock recall, if you have those steps lined up: we’re going to contact legal—you need to get your legal team notified, what states are we in, what notifications need to go out there, who’s contacting the FDA, working with your PR expert to really say who’s going to be communicating to the media, are we going to be putting something in print, are people coming to our website. And that always leads me into the biggest piece people overlook: number two would be beefing up your phone banks. You need to have extra staff on hand or get some temps to have a large amount of phone banks lined up because you start getting tons of calls from suppliers, customers, people who are afraid of the recall—they saw the notice, maybe they thought their kid was sick—and things just start flowing in and bombarding you. And the third would be: don’t release any more product. Everything you have in the warehouse, that maybe is on trucks, put a hold on it immediately because you don’t want anything floating around there in the marketplace that could cause some people bodily injury.

Aaron Blank: Josh, thanks. Now Polly, moving on to you, from the legal perspective—Josh mentioned it—the first thing you want to do in that case is call your attorney, right? So, after calling you after a product recall, Polly, who again is from Perkins Coie, what would you guys recommend as your first three steps?

Polly Hampton: I’d say the first step is you want to be focused on your relationship with the regulators. You want to be sure that you’re working cooperatively with the regulators, keeping them informed, you’ve come up with a plan and you’re following through with what you’ve said you’re going to do. You don’t want to keep the regulators in the dark on this. A second thing really is about your supply chain contracts. Depending on where you are in the supply chain, you’ve got to pull out those contracts. You need to have your legal team, your compliance team—whoever is the most familiar with that—identifying what your obligations are under those contracts. If you’re informing others, you need to remind them of their obligations in the supply chain and then follow up to make sure they’re doing what they need to be doing up and down the supply chain. And then finally, and Josh mentioned this, I would say you need to have a cohesive message from the business, approved by management, about what you’re going to say to the public, and make sure that everyone is informed of that and the people who are authorized to speak on it are the ones who do the speaking.

Aaron Blank: Polly, Josh, thank you. And from a PR standpoint, where The Fearey Group comes into play—getting ahead of your product recall—I would always think about making sure you have (step one) a go-dark website. Get ready before it happens; talk to your web developer and prepare a part of your website that could take over should you have a massive product recall or any crisis at hand. Number two, we talked about it, everyone said it here—key messaging—but I would go one step further: have a bank of statements ready that are generic that you could have ready to go so you’re not thinking last-minute about what do I need to say publicly. And third, make sure you have a trained spokesperson. You don’t want to go out during a crisis and figure out how to get ready to talk to the media in about an hour, which is usually the case. So, if you are hearing this, go get your key leader/spokesperson trained so that you’re ready for your next thing.

Again, Aaron Blank here at the Northwest Food & Beverage World. Thanks again, and thanks to Parker, Smith & Feek and Perkins Coie for taking part in our presentation today.