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The perspective of a Crisis

These past weeks a crisis took place. Do you know what I am talking about? Most probably not, because it was not so sexy for social media… Although it could have been.

The issue at hand: listeria outbreak linked to frozen vegetables. It was an European crisis affecting Romania as well.

Probably you have seen some news on TV and different media channels calling out the names of the retailers who had to redraw products from the shelves.

The retailers responded to the crisis in their own time. Some very fast and accurate, some more "shy". I have seen in some supermarkets a written announcement for consumers. I am curious to know how many of the shoppers actually read that.

The press in Romania adopted a looser stand compared to what happened in other parts of Europe. We had no alarmist titles such as “killer listeria” or “STOP USING FROZEN VEGETABLES TODAY. DEATHS IN EUROPE & AUSTRALIA”. Here we talked about the "listeria scandal". In the UK, or at least that's how I perceived it, the media approach was ferocious. Therefore, retailers communicated on all channels, social media included. In Romania, posters in stores were enough… Or so it seems.

It was interesting to see how a topic that can affect the health of thousands of consumers was lightly debated in media and social media, but when a mother has an unpleasant interaction with a brand, the entire social media engages. So real crisis vs induced crisis situations, a company needs to be prepared for both and understand the dimensions.

Authorities in Romania played an important role as well. They reacted pretty fast, saying that the tests they have done showed no traces of listeria thus minimizing the impact of the news.

Six years ago I would have recommended more communication on all sorts of media on the listeria topic, especially that the retailers had no fault on this, you could say they were more involved in saving the day. But no, now, brands need to communicate more on topics with high potential of bipolar conversations in social media.

As I wanted to see how this crisis developed in Europe I talked with Florence Ranson, former Communication Director for FoodDrinkEurope and this is what I found out.

1. How do you see the crises response of retail companies in Europe regarding the listeriosis crisis? How about the response of the producer?

As a rule of thumb, any retailer who is informed of a problem with food they sell will immediately recall the incriminated products and withdraw them from sales. The same happens with food producers. Neither wants to risk problems or health hazards with consumers.

2. From your perspective has the food industry responded fast enough?

It seems that the cases were related mostly to products which were not cooked properly before being eaten. There are instructions for cooking on packs, normally, to avoid this kind of problem. If the products were contaminated because of a lack of cooking, there is very little either retailer or producer can do, but they will generally anyway withdraw the product from sale, just to be safe. A usual deadline between identification of the source of contamination and withdrawal of the product is short when it is in the same country. It can be longer when the products are exported and if they are re-processed elsewhere, for instance to be included in a recipe, etc. Thanks to clear labelling, products can be traced rapidly, thus helping to contain contamination in case it happens. There is also an efficient Rapid Alert System in place throughout the EU, to inform relevant authorities – and producers/retailers - in case of problem. The system works well and is subscribed to by all Member States. It relies on the accuracy of information given by those who raise the alarm. It is possible that once the alarm was given in Hungary, nobody realized then that products had been exported. Of course, the Rapid Alert System is only efficient if transparency and honesty are applied scrupulously.

3. 3 things companies/industry have done well in this crisis

1. Isolate the guilty stocks

2. Remove them from sale

3. Focus on the broader picture, ex frozen vegetables are still generally safe, if cooked properly

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