Food Recall of the Month: Ground Beef 

Shortly after the Center for Disease Control updated its food safety alert on May 13, 2019, multiple news outlets began reporting on the probe into tainted ground beef. These headlines sparked consumer interest because the ongoing multi-state investigation appears far from over, and as more customers demand supply-chain transparency, this recall provides insight into how a communications strategy or lack thereof affects the public conversation.

Ongoing ground beef investigation

Here’s a short timeline of events:
  • On March 28, Kentucky and Georgia government officials alerted the CDC of the outbreak.
  • The next day Kentucky state officials issued a warning on their website.
  • Eight days later, the CDC announced their inquiry into the E. coli illnesses.
  • This led to the April 23 and 24 recalls of 166,624 pounds of raw ground beef products by Grant Park Packing in Franklin Park, IL, and K2D Foods, doing business as Colorado Premium Foods, in Carrollton, GA.
  • The first lawsuit was filed April 25. The plaintiff's lawyer alleges, "Although there was a massive recall issued, there are still many more unanswered questions than answered questions."
Currently, the outbreak of the Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O103 spans almost two months, from March 1 to April 19.  During this time, 196 people became ill, and 16% of the cases required hospitalization. However, without a named source of the tainted ground beef, the CDC says that the numbers of illnesses and recalls may increase.

Previous ground beef recalls

In 2018, ground beef recalls for salmonella far surpassed those for E. coli. Although salmonella concerns resulted in millions of pounds of ground beef recalled, the smaller E. coli outbreak caused one death. Earlier this year, consumers were also alerted to the voluntary recall put out by Impossible Foods, opening up new questions and opportunities for how regulators will handle this up-and-coming plant-based meat industry.

Hands-off comms strategy

While we've seen reports from the CDC and USDA regarding the specifics of the recall, neither company involved has provided a statement. Consumers won't find news about the recall on the websites of Grant Park Packing or K2D Foods. Nor does either company have a social media presence, unsurprisingly since they function as a B2B organization. At this point, it's unclear if there is a problem at the original sites or if the two companies share a common supplier. It’s not unusual for a commodity brand to stay quiet during a recall – they don’t have big communications teams who are skilled at marketing towards consumers, so they often let regulators take the lead in these situations. If this recall does grow, it will be interesting to watch to see if either brand makes any kind of public statement.