A how-to guide for companies involved in food recalls

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney whose firm represents victims of foodborne illness, has seen the best and worst of company behavior when faced with pressures to “voluntarily” recall tainted products.  Here is his guide to good corporate behavior under difficult circumstances.  It begins with “don’t produce tainted products in the first place.”   But, alas, if you do:

First, have a pre-existing relationship with the folks that regulate you. If someone holds your business in the palm of his or her hand, you should at least be on a first name basis. No, I am not suggesting that you can influence your way out of the outbreak, but knowing who is telling you that your company has a problem allows you the ability to get and understand the facts. Do regulators and their investigators make mistakes? Perhaps, but not very often and not often enough to waste time arguing that your company did not poison customers.

Second, stop production of the implicated product and initiate a recall of all products at risk immediately. This procedure should have been practiced, and practiced, and practiced before. All possibly implicated suppliers should be alerted and all retailers should be offered assistance. Consumers need to be engaged too. The goal now is to get poisoned product out of the marketplace and certainly out of the homes of consumers.

Third, launch your own investigation with two approaches, and at the same time. Are the regulators correct? And, what went wrong? Tell everyone to save all documents (you have to anyway). The goal here is to get things right. If it really is not your product, what has happened is bad, but survivable. If it really was your product, then learning what happened helps make sure it is likely to never happen again. More than anything, be transparent. Tell everyone what you find–good or bad.

Fourth, assuming that the outbreak is in fact your fault, publicly admit it. If it is not your fault, then fight it. However, pretending that you are innocent when you are actually at fault will get you nowhere. Asking for forgiveness is not a bad thing when you have something to be forgiven for. Saying you are sorry is not wrong when you are in fact wrong.

Fifth, do not blame your customers. If your food has a pathogen it is not your customers’ responsibility to handle it like it will likely kill them or a member of their family. Hoping that the consumer will fix your mistake takes your eye off of avoiding the mistake in the first place.

Sixth, reach out to your customers and consumers who have been harmed. Offering to pay legitimate losses will save money and your company’s reputation in the long run.

Seventh, teach all what you have learned. Do not hide what you have learned. Make your knowledge freely available so we all limit the risk that something similar will happen again.

In other words, do the right thing.  Excellent advice.

But Mr. Marler cites no examples.  I wonder if there are companies that actually did all this?  It would be good to know who they are.

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