Crises happen: Learn from past incidents and prepare to respond and manage

An outbreak is a nightmare for any company and will most certainly result in real costs to the business. What’s kind of crazy is that these incidents happen weekly and often firms seem like they didn’t think it would happen to them. Companies repeatedly fall into certain pitfalls during a crisis. usually surrounding a statement of “we’ve done the same thing for X years and we’ve never had a problem.” Or “we follow the strictest government regulations.”

That’s not enough.

Public health officials call a produce packer and tell them that a cluster of 60 illnesses has one thing in common—their product. Illnesses have been popping up for weeks, entered into state and national databases, and after a couple of rounds of interviews with the victims (some still hospitalized), statistics and epidemiology point to the packer as the source.

The investigators are on their way to the facility; they would like to see how clean and sanitized the packing lines are, how well the packer’s dump tank chlorinator is working and analyze all transaction documents to determine where all incoming product came from and where it all went.

There are sick children, chatter on Twitter, press inquiries and angry customers looking for refunds. Additionally, all of this happens within 24 hours of the initial call. Within 3 days, the number of linked illnesses triples, lawsuits have been filed and the commodity has become the punch line in late-night talk show monologues.

This is the start of an article that Audrey Kreske, Doug and I co-authored on crisis management where we talk about preparation and response strategies. It’s in the June/July issue of Food Safety Magazine. Check it out here.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.