Food warnings are at a record high. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the industry’s communications.
What is going on with our food? The product warnings in the official portal of the German Federal Government, www.lebensmittelwarnung.de, roll over themselves. By the beginning of October, there were already 160. And with the endangerment and three death reports in the case of food producer Wilke it seemed to head for a sad high point. Afterwards it went downhill again: Listeria, coli bacteria, foreign objects. By the end of the year, the number of warnings will probably rise to 200. Even the respectable German news portal Tagesschau reported in recent days that food warnings and recalls have risen to record levels. What’s going on? Is it that our food has become more unsafe? Or are there simply more warnings?
We’ve been helping customers through food crises for nearly ten years. And in the process, we’ve noticed: The way we deal with food crises has changed significantly. The big turning point was the EHEC crisis in 2011. There, an entire nation looked on in fear at the daily increase in the number of illnesses while authorities and institutes were looking for the source of the pathogen. 4,000 serious cases of illness, some with lifelong consequences, and more than 50 deaths were reported at the end of the crisis. BSE and dioxin contamination a few years earlier had set the stage for improved consumer information laws. Still, the overall system was still not geared toward rapid processing. Neither the practice on farms nor in government offices.
New realizations about food lead to bigger nervousness
With EHEC, everything changed. People realized that food suspected of being a carrier of germs had often already been consumed by the time of the illnesses and subsequent investigations. The whole system, from food traceability, to controls and investigations, to a recall from the market, was simply too slow.
Today, the response system is much faster and more efficient. Both in and between the authorities involved, as well as in the manufacturers’ plants. Back in October 2011, the portal www.lebensmittelwarnung.de was launched in Germany. Consumers are to be warned about health-endangering foods at an early stage. Often within a few hours of an official decision or a recall. There is no question that with this system, the EHEC crisis would have been different. (Even if lebensmittelwarnung.de is rightly criticized for often publishing warnings too slowly with the enslowed rhythm of an authority).
High nervousness leads to more warnings
The significant increase in the number of warnings is therefore a good sign. This year alone, we have also prepared ten companies for a recall or provided communications support for them. However, it is also true that today we probably have the safest food and the best self-checks of all time in Germany. The reason for this is that analytics have become more and more powerful and companies today also carry out many more self-checks. In order to avoid liability risks, manufacturers are already recall products from circulation on their own initiative at the slightest suspicion. Hardly known to the public is the fact that for every public recall there are several so-called “silent recalls”, where the product is not yet on sale and can still be returned from the warehouses.
Public recalls must be issued when food products are declared to be hazardous to health, disgusting or deceptive. In fact, warnings and recalls are already being issued today well below these thresholds.
Does high nervousness lead to more duds?
Does anyone remember the “fipronil scandal” two years ago? Back then, the insecticide had gotten into the cleaning agent of chicken houses under dubious circumstances and was detected during self-checks by Belgian producers. In a confusing situation, a precautionary warning was issued in the European rapid alert system. Within a very short time, eggs were withdrawn from the market throughout Europe. In Germany, Aldi even stopped all sales of eggs for which there was no tested negative result. Great anxiety creept up and resulted in the usual recriminations and special broadcasts. The special punch line of the affair: The health-relevant limit value was not even approximately reached in a single German control.
That event underlines the nervous attitude of the industry. Better warn once too much, than once too little. Too many companies that have already been thrown out of the market by a single major crisis. And not because they failed to get their hygiene practices under control. Rather they gambled with the trust of their customers after poor communication.
Consumer confidence in the food industry is at an all-time low
Consumer advocates also still consider warning practices to be inadequate. They call for warnings to address possible illnesses more intensively and, above all, for retailers themselves to put their communications capabilities to better use in the service of product warnings. It is to be doubted whether it will benefit anyone to expand the comprehensiveness of the warnings. Now already the inflation of the warning messages represents an overtaxing of the consumers. We see this in the hotlines we provide for consumers and the media during recalls. For the majority of callers, it quickly becomes apparent that they do not even own the product that is the subject of the recall. The consumer’s fears are real, the product is not.
That is very reflective of the current mood. And it is true, however, that retailers and producers could do more to provide guidance to consumers. Even though we have the safest food, consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Food entrepreneurs are now widely seen as profit-hungry scoundrels, regulators as incompetent, and organic food as too expensive anyway.
The Wilke case was, of course, a disaster for the industry and has again eliminated a lot of trust and fueled prejudices. Media like to play on these fears. When it comes to food, news value is always based on negative potential. And it is a fact that Germans generally place more trust in negative media reports than in positive ones. Well known tabloids are happy to cater to this. The daily food crisis serves well as editorial filler. Wilke has undoubtedly served a need for horror and disgust in the audience. And that primarily serves to stabilize dearly held clichés.
Food producers often overwhelmed with communicative responsibility
It is nevertheless true that the industry has a major communication problem. Retailers pass on the communicative responsibility to producers, who are largely overwhelmed by that responsibility. The vast majority of producers are medium-sized family businesses that rarely have a communication practice that corresponds to their sales. In a state of shock and fear of the powerful media and trade customers, their own communicative responsibility is talked down. That leads to their business activities being shrouded in silence and intransparency.
However, those who only discover the importance of communication during a nationwide recall and find themselves pilloried have their backs against the wall. They cannot hope for mercy and understanding from the public. Even more, they make the biggest mistake companies can make.They stop all communication at the moment when only communication can help. They sometimes even close down in every respect. In doing so, they annoy everyone: consumers, retailers and even the authorities, who are, after all, obligated to communicate and also dislike being left alone to do so.
Seeing communication as a business asset in crisis
The paradox: Many of these companies are quite alert and innovative. They embrace the latest technologies, pass the most demanding audits, and understand the needs of their customers. The food warnings, the recalls, the insolvencies of Wilke and Co. are the portent at the factory gate. Producers are currently experiencing how quickly even a single recall due to a suspected listeria or a temporary hygiene problem can confront them with the question of their existence. It is high time to face up to the communicative responsibility.