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.  

Recall of the Month: Impossible Burger

Since the FDA stamped the Impossible Burger with a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status in July 2018, we’ve heard several announcements from Impossible Foods regarding future partnerships and innovation. Then, after a California restaurant found a piece of plastic inside one of the brand’s “clean meat” patties, the company issued a voluntary recall on March 22, for products manufactured on February 19.

This recall comes on the heels of Impossible Foods rolling out their gluten-free Impossible Burger 2.0 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, along with the assurance of retail sales and talks of a plant-based “steak” in the works. With lab-grown products on the horizon, the industry faces the potential of regulatory oversight, consumer perception, and the risk of increased recalls.

Plant-based foods getting closer to mainstream

A study by Nielsen and commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) shows retail sales of plant-based meat products grew a whopping 24% last year. This led Michele Simon, executive director of PBFA to say plant-based foods have gone “fully mainstream.”

For a company like Impossible Foods, which has sold 13 million Impossible Burgers since 2016, evolving public perception is key to future sales growth. The plant-based Impossible Burger uses a genetically-engineered heme protein called soy leghemoglobin to appeal to consumers who prefer the taste, smell and look of real meat.

Experts suggest that FDA approval of the genetically-modified yeast as a food color additive will increase customer confidence in the GMO-derived burger.

FDA and USDA announce a collaboration

On March 7, the USDA announced a “formal agreement to jointly oversee the production of human food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry,” which includes lab-grown meats. The Impossible Burger is a plant-based product, putting it firmly in the FDA’s jurisdiction. However, concerns over the self-affirmation process used by corporations like Impossible Foods to skirt FDA regulations and questions about product labeling remain. The FDA’s response to consumer safety advocates will help determine the types and number of recalls.

A new wave of recalls

Although we're less likely to see typical meat-related recalls for plant-based foods, many industries rely on machinery for automation. Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food & Water, told NBC that “recalls have ticked up partly because more food in meat plants is being prepared by machines with parts that can break off.”

Aside from production woes, the use of genetically-modified ingredients may increase the number of recalls due to labeling concerns over new allergens and from future studies on the long-term effects of various GMO ingredients.

As consumers navigate new terminology for recalls and learn more about genetically altered products, we expect corporations to use targeted campaigns to direct the conversation, and additional FDA oversight may be required.

The real risk to consumers when we go without most FDA food inspections

After a tumultuous year with multiple recalls, consumers are wary. Add in the government shutdown complete with plenty of press coverage, and we see the confidence in our food supply system tank. Although the full impact of the government shutdown on food inspections is unknown, instability is at the root of real consumer risk.

Shaken consumer confidence during the shutdown

The initial storm broke in a January 9 tweet by Scott Gottlieb, M.D., commissioner of the FDA, where he said his agency wasn’t completing domestic food inspections due to the shutdown. He tweeted that “we’d typically do about 160 domestic food inspections each week, and about 1/3 of those would be considered high risk.”

Dr. Gottlieb listed high-risk products, like baby formulas, seafood and soft cheeses, as missing inspections. For the average consumer, this lengthy list added to their concern, and some took to Twitter to ask if any food was safe. Within minutes, an NBC news interview with Gottlieb surfaced with talks of recalling workers.

While some experts praised this decision, NBC quoted others like Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), saying, “We don’t want the person inspecting our meat… to be distracted by not being able to pay their bills.”

This argument sheds light on the genuine threat to consumers: a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of an already strained system.

Concern over issues with food recalls

On a good business day, the FDA faces ongoing staffing shortages and worry over budget cuts. Sarah Taber, a consultant whose company, Boto Waterworks, monitors fruit and vegetable facilities told Bloomberg  the FDA  hasn’t been doing “enough for decades.” With the average food inspector earning less than $40,000 per year, attracting quality applicants isn’t easy. Rising concerns over transparency in the food supply system add to the increasing uneasiness over the credibility of the inspections.

Consumers rely on regular reviews of at-risk facilities to prevent a problem before it reaches a critical level. In the most recent data from the FDA, hundreds of facilities were cited for pest contamination. Others were found with objectionable water and sanitation conditions. Dozens more were written up after inspectors visually observed employees eating food, chewing gum, drinking beverages or using tobacco in areas with exposed food, equipment or utensils. With the majority of inspections halted, this increases the likelihood of problems.

Thorough investigations help deliver the evidence for food recalls

The Center for Disease Control lists 24 foodborne disease outbreaks in 2018, the highest in more than a decade. Dr. Gottlieb credits this to “better technology than ever before to link outbreaks of human illness to a common pathogen.” However, without proper regulatory protections during a government shutdown, unknown threats abound.

If total food inspections drop in 2019, then we face shortfalls in consumer trust that will impact sales in several industries. For those in the foodservice industry, it makes transparency difficult yet vital. Add in a lapse in service, a backlog of high-risk inspections, and you have the perfect storm for a health outbreak.


44.5 Tons of Ham Recalled After Deadly Listeria Outbreak

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced Johnston County Hams voluntarily recalled approximately 89,096 pounds of ready-to-eat ham products potentially infected with Listeria monocytogenes.

The investigation began Sept. 27 when FSIS was notified a person fell ill after consuming their cured country ham. Further investigation revealed a total of four confirmed listeriosis illnesses between July 8, 2017 and Aug. 11, 2018. Unfortunately, one of the victims has since passed.

After determining a link between the illnesses and the ham producer, FSIS epidemiologists compared samples from the four confirmed cases. Results showed Listeria monocytogenes present in deli ham closely related to those found in the infected individuals.

As a result, five ready-to-eat deli loaf ham products produced between April 3, 2017 and Oct. 2, 2018, were subject to recall. These items were shipped to distributors in Maryland, North Carolina, New York, South Carolina and Virginia. FSIS urged consumers to check freezers and throw away or return any potentially infected items.

In a statement released Oct. 4 , Johnston County Hams released the following:

“Safety is a top priority for Johnston County Hams and we have issued a voluntary recall of our ready-to-eat deli loaf ham products. We are recalling the products listed below:

  • Varying weights “Johnston County Hams, Inc. Country Style Fully Cooked Boneless Deli Ham.”
  • Varying weights “Ole Fashioned Sugar Cured The Old Dominion Brand Hams Premium Fully Cooked Country Ham”
  • Varying weights “Padow’s Hams & Deli, Inc. Fully Cooked Country Ham Boneless Glazed with Brown Sugar.”
  • Varying weights “Premium Fully Cooked Country Ham Less Salt Distributed By: Valley Country Hams LLC”
  • Varying weights “Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Boneless Fully Cooked.

We are deeply saddened to hear of the link between our products and consumer injuries. We are committed to identifying the root cause and taking proper corrective actions in close collaboration with the USDA and CDC. In addition, we have notified our distribution partners and will continue efforts to notify the public.”

The recalls quickly spread to other companies using Johnson County Ham products including Callie’s Charleston Biscuits, Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods and Ladyfingers Caterers.

On Oct. 4, Callie’s Charleston Biscuits voluntarily recalled two frozen products and released a statement reiterating their commitment to quality:

"At the core of our business is making sure that our customers and community are receiving the best possible products. We have a plan in place that we were hoping to never use. We acted immediately with every possible precaution to ensure the safety of our customers. To our loyal retailers, we have a contingency plan in place and do not foresee any major disruptions in our service.”

The same day, Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods also announced the recall of 18,296 pounds of product related to the Johnston County recall. More than two dozen wraps, pinwheels and salad products were included.

Although no illnesses were reported, they released a statement following the recall:

“The safety of those who consume our products is our highest priority. As soon as we learned of the supplier recall, we immediately communicated with our retail partners so that impacted items could be removed from store shelves. We are now working to ensure that fresh products will be back in stores as soon as possible.”

A day later, Ladyfingers Caterers recalled all Signature Shaved Country Ham Rolls. One associated illness was reported, but no official statement was released.

A holiday favorite found anywhere from Costco to, most Johnston County Ham products are currently unavailable as they work to restart the 10 to 14-month-long ham-curing process.


Recall of the Month: Cyclospora Summer Outbreak

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture will remember the summer of 2018 as one of their busiest periods flagging contaminated food products.  They issued a public health alert July 30 due to concern for possible contamination of Cyclospora (an intestinal parasite) in salad and wraps marketed by Trader Joe’s, Kroger and Walgreens.  This alert came on the heels of McDonald’s pulling salads in Illinois and Iowa linked to cases of cyclosporiasis.

Foodborne Illnesses USA

Annually, the FDA estimates 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses as a result of contaminated food – roughly 1 in 6 Americans.  These illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.  The disease-causing bacteria that contaminate food are at high risk for the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, young children, senior adults and people with weaken immune systems.

Are foodborne illnesses, especially in light of the consumer demand for convenience products (e.g., pre-packaged salads, wraps) and the health & wellness trend to eat more produce, occurring more frequently?  FoodNet, the surveillance unit of the CDC revealed that the number of outbreaks reported to their National Outbreak Reporting System by state and local health departments has remained stable over the years until an upswing in 2017.  Their data indicates the incidents of foodborne illness related to numerous pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc., have increased 96% in 2017 compared to the 2014 to 2016 average.  Within this data, they reported infections from Cyclospora, cited as the cause of the recent McDonald’s recall, increased significantly.

Cyclospora, is an intestinal parasite most commonly found in produce grown in tropical/subtropical environments.  Past outbreaks resulting in an infection of the intestines known as cyclosporiasis were attributed to imported fresh produce (e.g., Guatemalan raspberries, snow peas, basil and mesclun lettuce).  Intestinal health issues related to cyclosporiasis are diarrhea, stomach cramping and nausea that result in weight loss and fatigue.

McDonald’s Recall

In the middle of July, health authorities in Illinois and Iowa reported over 100 cases of cyclosporiasis linked to McDonald’s salads.  As a precaution, McDonald’s removed salads from approximately 3,000 locations.  The FDA continued their investigation well into August focusing in on McDonald’s distributors and growers of romaine lettuce and carrots.  They updated their lab-related data and reported that the outbreak impacted 476 people in 15 midwestern states.  In addition, the FDA revealed the leading source of the contamination issues were linked to the Streamwood, Illinois processing plant of McDonald’s salad blend supplier, Fresh Express.

Given the severity of the Cyclospora outbreak and the uncertainty of how it originated, Fresh Express implemented a panel of food safety and industry experts – the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon panel. While past Cyclospora outbreaks originated in Central America, the company is now concerned the source of contamination could be fresh produce grown in the U.S. during the spring and summer months.  According to John Olivo, Fresh Express’s president: “The purpose of the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon Panel is to assemble an interdisciplinary group of independent scientific experts to better understand Cyclospora’s mode of action and how the industry can better guard against future outbreaks.” The panel will collaborate with the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies.

Moving Forward

It is crucial for food, a multi-trillion-dollar industry, to implement sound food safety procedures.  Industry innovators have begun utilizing blockchain technology as a solution to facilitate end-to-end traceability to improve supply chain, plus when it comes to food recalls, locate the issue quickly to remove contaminated products from distribution, shelves, even menus.  In the interim before blockchain technology is universal, food safety training solutions will be paramount to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, especially when it comes to produce.  Training should start in the executive suite and filter down to online and in-person training for employees on the front lines.  In addition, it would be prudent for companies to utilize third-party inspectors to validate that all food safety protocols are being implemented.

Over the last decade, the annual per capita consumption of vegetables increased significantly, especially among consumers under the age of 40; fresh produce by 52 percent (source: NPD).   Consequently, operators are menuing healthier items like salads and wraps.  The crusade to make these products safe from farm to plate is now a top priority.

Companies take quick action in Goldfish and Ritz recalls

On July 20, a dairy company announced a Salmonella contamination had been discovered in whey powder produced at its plant in Blair, Wisconsin. This didn’t get much public attention, but events over the next few days did.

The following day, parents and consumers learned through social media and various news sources that some varieties of Ritz crackers were being recalled due to potential Salmonella contamination. Two days later, Campbell Soup announced a recall of some Goldfish cracker varieties for the same reason. Both Campbell and Mondelez International, the maker of Ritz Crackers, had purchased whey powder from the dairy company involved in the recall, Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI).

Has food contamination become more common?

Campbell’s and Mondelez’ recalls happened on the heels of Chipotle’s latest contamination problems and the recent outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce. Just a week before the Ritz and Goldfish announcements, Kelloggs Honey Smacks were recalled amidst a Salmonella contamination crisis. The cereal sickened people in 33 states between March and July 2018.

With all this in the headlines, it would be easy to assume the U.S. food system is facing serious problems. Recalls and outbreaks seem more common than ever. And the fact that several of these recalls have affected favorite children’s snacks is sure to make parents nervous.

Are there really more food contamination issues these days? Or are we just hearing about them more?

Other factors affecting the number of recalls

Unlike some other recent recalls, the Ritz and Goldfish recalls came before any illnesses were reported. (In the following days, several customers reported illnesses after eating Ritz crackers.) The whey powder contamination was discovered during routine testing at AMPI, according to the company.

Today, contamination is more likely to be discovered early because of advances in detection and tracing technology. Additionally, policy changes stemming from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, have led to increased testing and reporting. According to the FDA, one of the major changes instigated by FSMA is a shift in focus from reacting to outbreaks to preventing outbreaks.

Between FSMA, better testing technology and enhanced media attention in the wake of deadly outbreaks, it may appear that food contamination is becoming more common. But in the past, similar incidents may just have not been caught and any resulting illnesses may have been chalked up to other causes.

Are foods frequently served to kids subject to more attention in these situations? The provisions of FSMA apply to companies regardless of whether the products are targeted at kids or adults. But because Goldfish and Ritz are two familiar brands popular for kids’ lunches and snacks may have increased media coverage of the situation. And parents frequently spread the word on social media when a recall affects something their kids use, whether it’s a toy, a crib or a snack food.

Why we need a modern food testing system

Our modern food system is complex and many ingredients have national or international distribution. When, almost inevitably, the occasional contamination occurs, it can affect people across many states and even countries. For this reason, we need a strong detection system as well as a rapid alert system to identify contaminated food and stop it from reaching consumers.

When disease-associated microbes are discovered in the food supply, we need to spread the word fast. Media coverage can actually work to an affected company’s advantage if it prevents people from getting sick from eating already recalled foods.

According to the CDC, kids under age five are more likely to become ill from Salmonella and to have severe symptoms compared to healthy adults and older children. So, it is particularly important to get the word out when a recall affects a popular kids’ brand.

How have Campbell Soup and Mondelez responded?

Both companies made a good choice in proactively issuing a voluntary recall before any illnesses were reported. The quick action they took should increase public trust in these brands.

Another positive is that both companies kept the message clear and simple. A brief, simple announcement giving just the facts is posted on the Pepperidge Farm website, and the Mondelez International and Ritz Crackers websites show similar messages. Both companies include links to sources of more information and provide images of the flavors and varieties being recalled, allowing customers to easily check for the foods in their pantries.

The response to this contamination incident shows the system is working. When companies spread the word quickly and effectively, they can help prevent a manageable problem from developing into a serious and potentially deadly crisis.

Chipotle’s Food Safety Issues Strike Again

On December 10, 2015, in response to the series of foodborne illness outbreaks plaguing the restaurant, Chipotle’s then-CEO and founder, Steve Ellis, appeared on the Today Show, stating, “It has caused us to put in place practices that our epidemiologist expert says will put us 10 to 15 years ahead of industry norms, and I believe this will be the safest restaurant to eat at. This was a very unfortunate incident and I'm deeply sorry this happened, but the procedures we're putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.”

As a result of the 2015 incident, the fast casual restaurant chain increased the number of inspections by both internal teams and independent auditors. Chipotle also launched new handling procedures for meats, produce and citrus, and instituted new comprehensive sanitizing protocols.

Regardless, problems have arisen again. The latest episode came to the public’s attention on Monday, July 30, when the Mexican fast casual chain closed a location in Powell, Ohio, following online reports from over 250 individuals who claimed they’d contracted food poisoning there. Since that time, health officials have stated 647 people self-reported gastrointestinal symptoms after eating at the Chipotle in question between July 26 and July 30.

On August 16, Ohio-based Delaware District Health District issued a statement, noting although food samples taken from the chain had tested negative for bacteria, stool samples collected from the victims and tested by the CDC came up positive for the bacteria Clostridium perfringens. C. perfringens, one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States, attacks the gastrointestinal tract. It often occurs when food is prepared in large quantities and left at an unsafe temperature for a long period before being served, which is believed to be the case at the Ohio location.

Since that time, two victims of the Ohio incident have filed lawsuits against Chipotle. Plaintiffs Filip Syzller and Clayton Jones ate chicken tacos and a burrito bowl, respectively, before falling violently ill and seeking medical treatment. The lawsuits allege that Chipotle had not done enough to ensure food safety.

For their part, current Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol issued a statement, saying, “Chipotle has a zero-tolerance policy for any violations of our stringent food safety standards and we are committed to doing all we can to ensure it does not happen again. Once we identified this incident, we acted quickly to close the Powell restaurant and implemented our food safety response protocols that include total replacement of all food inventory and complete cleaning and sanitization of the restaurant."

Niccol joined the company in March of this year, taking the reins from Ellis, who now serves as executive chairman. Niccol, previously CEO of Taco Bell and credited with its turnaround, was hailed by Wall Street as a would-be savior for the troubled brand.

In addition to Niccol's statement, the company has moved forward with an aggressive retraining agenda, with thousands of employees at over 2,400 Chipotle restaurants soon to undergo food safety training, predominantly during early morning, pre-business hours. Chipotle spokeswoman Laurie Schalow told Nation’s Restaurant News, “We are retraining all employees on our top food safety protocols (i.e. proper hand washing, hot and cold temperature holding procedures, cooking and prep procedures, etc.).”

Burt Flickinger III, managing director of New York-based Strategic Resource Group, a consulting firm focused on retail chains, wholesalers, suppliers and investment companies, feels Chipotle's nationwide employee retraining plan is a good one. "The food safety problems don't seem to stop," he said. "What they’re doing is very commendable, but it’s very necessary for the ongoing viability of the business, because they’ve survived one or two more consumer health concerns than a lot of other restaurants, and they have to get it right."

Similarly, Lynne Collier, a senior restaurant analyst at Canaccord Genuity investment firm was positive on the decision, noting, "It's definitely a good move, both from a public appearance standpoint and also from a business perspective," she said. "It may prevent a future incident, which is also very costly."

While it’s impossible to predict consumer response to the continued food safety issues, investor confidence in Chipotle appears to be strong. Although the share price dropped to $433.66 on July 31, on August 15 it climbed to an all-time height of $525.89, far above its $320 average in March, when Ellis first took over.

Outbreak of the Month: Kellogg’s Honey Smacks Cereal

When it was first introduced in 1953, Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks cereal became an instant hit with adults and children alike. More recently, the sweetened puffed wheat cereal – known today as Honey Smacks – drew attention for very different reasons.

Between March 3 and May 28, 2018, 73 people across 31 states were identified as having been infected with Salmonella Mbandaka. Hospitalization was required in 24 cases, although there were no reported fatalities. Epidemiological evidence collected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal was the likely source. Sickened patients were interviewed with respect to food they had consumed and other exposures during the week before they fell ill. Of the 39 individuals interviewed, 30 (77%) indicated they had eaten cold cereal, with 14 of those specifically reporting consumption of Honey Smacks.  

On Thursday, June 14, the Kellogg Co. announced a massive, nationwide recall of the sweetened cereal, reporting more than an estimated 1.3 million cases were potentially contaminated with Salmonella. The recall began with 15-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of the frog-festooned breakfast treat marked ‘Best if used by June 14, 2018 through June 14, 2019.”

In their statement, Kellogg asked that “people who purchased the potentially affected product discard it and contact the company for a full refund.” They also noted the potentially contaminated breakfast food had been in limited distribution in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as Guam, Tahiti and Saipan.

On June 15, the CDC updated their online warning to read, “Do not eat Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal in any size package. Check your home for it and throw it away, or return it to the place of purchase for a refund. If you store cereal in a container, thoroughly wash the container with warm, soapy water before using it again to remove harmful germs that could contaminate other food."

In response, restaurants and retailers across the United States and other impacted countries immediately pulled the product from their shelves and menus. The Ministry of Health in Belize issued an official public statement, urging people to “not consume any Kellogg’s Honey Smacks” until further notice.

Although the response was swift and rigorous, on June 22, Michigan’s Battle Creek Enquirer newspaper reported that Houston-based Ron Simon & Associates, a national food safety law firm, had filed a lawsuit against Kellogg Co. The suit alleged that a single mother in Oklahoma City contracted Salmonella within 24 hours of consuming Honey Smacks. The illness resulted in a three-day hospitalization, as well as continued medical treatment.

In an email response to the same paper, a Kellogg spokesperson noted, “While we don’t comment on litigation, we take our commitment to quality and food safety very seriously. We are saddened to learn about any illness that may result from our Honey Smacks cereal and will ensure this situation is handled in a responsible and sensitive manner.”

To date, no other lawsuits have been filed. However, on their website, The Coveny Law Firm noted, “The recall was slow to get on the radar of national health agencies, as the victims are spread widely across the nation. The most any state has is seven, in New York, with a few states having five victims – the majority have one to three victims.  The outbreak also started slowly in early March, and then gained momentum in April and May until, on June 10th, with many more potential illness out there, the trace-back investigation pointed to Honey Smacks cereal. This is not the first time that a Kellogg Cereal was linked to a Salmonella recall, as Kellogg cereals were recalled nearly a decade ago due to a contaminated ingredient (peanut butter).  This time the culprit may again be a contaminated ingredient – introduced into the cereal.  It may also be there was a break-down at the Kellogg facility.”

While such incidents are unusual, in 2008, there was a Salmonella outbreak linked to puffed rice and puffed wheat cereals distributed under the Malt-O-Meal label. In their original statement, Kellogg Co. stated they had launched an investigation immediately after being contacted by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC regarding the reported illnesses. Specifically, they began reviewing the practices of the unnamed, third-party manufacturer who produces Honey Smacks. However, to date, no further updates have been provided by Kellogg Co., the FDA or the CDC.

With no further reported illnesses or issues, the cereal is once again back on shelves across the country. It will take time for us to understand the full impact of this recall on brand reputation, but with widespread media coverage and significant social chatter on the issue, it’s likely going to give consumers some pause when choosing a cereal for their families.

Understanding the Romaine-Based E. Coli Outbreak of 2018

Beginning in April, 197 people across 35 states contracted E. coli believed to have originated in Yuma, Arizona. Most of the victims reported eating bagged, pre-cut romaine lettuce, although some were merely in close contact with those who became sick from consuming it. Of the 197 victims, 89 required hospitalization. To date, individuals in California, New York, Arkansas and Minnesota have passed away.

In a May 31 blog post by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), authors Scott Gottlieb, M.D., and Stephen Ostroff, M.D. noted, “This is a serious and tragic outbreak. And we’re devoting considerable effort to identifying the primary source. We’ve made progress in recent weeks toward this goal. This outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses is the largest in the United States in more than 10 years.”

That outbreak, which occurred during the summer of 2006, impacted 199 people across 26 states and Canada and included three fatalities. The 2006 incident was ultimately linked to a baby spinach field in California, which had been contaminated by a mix of river water and cattle and feral pig feces. At present, the exact source of the current contamination is still unknown.

In a statement released by the FDA on June 1, they noted, “The traceback investigation indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor, or distributor. While traceback continues, the FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains.”

Across the country, retail food chains and grocery stores responded quickly to the threat. Costco, Walmart and Kroger grocery stores pulled existing lettuce products off their shelves in response to warnings from federal investigators. On April 21, the popular fast casual chain Just Salad took to Twitter to respond to concerns. With nearly 30 locations in the New York and New Jersey area, plus outposts in Philadelphia and Chicago, they reassured customers with the following: “Just Salad suppliers are NOT affected by the possible E.coli outbreak. Our Romaine in all markets is grown in CA, where there have not been any reports of contaminated lettuce. We will be adding Iceberg to the menu for those that would like another lettuce option.”

Selling contaminated food can have significant financial impacts for retailers and restaurants. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study published in April 2018 estimated the potential damages to a fast food restaurant due to an outbreak. According to the researchers, a single foodborne illness incident costs between $4,000 and $1.9 million for cases involving fines, lost revenue and legal fees.

In late May, the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, confirmed romaine lettuce was no longer being produced nor distributed from the Yuma growing region. The last known harvest occurred on April 16, 2018, and – due to the product’s 21-day shelf life – it's presumed the infected romaine lettuce is no longer available in stores or restaurants.

While the contaminated product is likely out of supply, it remains to be seen whether or not consumer trust in romaine lettuce has been impacted. However, kudos go to the grocers and restaurants who reacted quickly, because it demonstrated effective food safety systems in practice and reinforced consumer trust in their brands.

Raw Water: Harmless Trend or Health Threat?

An unusual trend has been gaining steam since late 2017. It’s called raw water, and its fans say it’s healthier than tap water, more natural, even probiotic. Raw water has mostly taken off in California and in affluent areas of the East Coast, among the same demographics who might go in for raw food diets or juicing. And some customers are willing to pay a premium to call themselves raw-water drinkers.

Of course, “raw water” is not a new thing. People have collected water directly from roadside and trailside springs for centuries, and specific springs have long been reputed to offer health-promoting properties. Many bottled water brands tout their water’s origin at some of these same springs, though bottled water is required to be tested and treated, if necessary, to bring it within federal and state water quality standards.

So, is “raw water” just re-branded bottled water? Or is this trend actually unsafe?

To answer this, it’s important to distinguish between different types of untreated water. Water safety depends on both the source – surface water, groundwater, or rainwater – and on what the water has been in contact with on its way from the source to the consumer. For all sources, water testing is very important to ensure safety.

Surface water and groundwater

Collecting untreated surface water (like the water in streams, rivers and lakes) for drinking can certainly make you sick. E. coli, Cryptosporidium, Shigella and hepatitis A virus are just a few of the infectious agents frequently found in untreated water located near human residences. Industrial and pesticide contamination are also concerns. Runoff from farms, factories, roads and cities easily enters surface bodies of water.

Clearly, in today’s world, it’s extremely difficult to find a stream or lake that’s untouched by human activity. But when it comes to microbes, even that bubbling mountain stream is likely not as clean as it looks. The parasite Giardia lamblia is shed in wild animal droppings and can survive for several months in a wilderness stream. This parasite can make you miserable for six weeks or more.

In contrast with untreated surface water, groundwater – in its original state deep under the earth’s surface – is often safe without treatment. Groundwater supplies are built up over time as water seeps into the earth through layers of soil, sand, silt and clay. Microbes and many organic contaminants get caught in tiny pores and stick to particles as the water passes through. Thus, deep ground water is naturally filtered and is typically free of microbes or even viruses.

Deep wells and water collection at natural springs are both ways of accessing this potentially safer water resource. But there are some major caveats: groundwater quality ranges widely among regions. Contaminants in some groundwater supplies can include industrial chemicals, petroleum, natural chemical or mineral contaminants like arsenic, and bad-tasting components like sulfur. In some areas, very high natural levels of fluoride exist – much higher than the levels added to tap water that some raw water drinkers are intent on avoiding. And groundwater can be contaminated near the surface or on its way to the bottling spot.

All this means testing is necessary. Over 15 million Americans access groundwater through private wells, and the CDC recommends that these homeowners have their wells tested at least yearly for both pathogens and pollutants. Many municipal water supplies originate as groundwater, too, but only after in-depth testing and treatment.

What about probiotic claims?

One of the biggest selling points for some raw water aficionados is the idea that “raw water” is probiotic or “alive,” and that it’s healthier to consume products that contain microbes. But there’s a huge difference between the microbes in probiotic foods and the microbes in untreated water. In yogurt and properly fermented food, benign microbes outcompete and suppress harmful ones. In drinking water, on the other hand, the presence of bacteria and other life forms is not a positive as there’s no fermentation process to suppress dangerous organisms.

Looking beyond the hype, raw water appears to be just another incarnation of bottled water, something the environmentally-concerned public is turning away from. The environmental costs of its transport and bottling are likely similar to those of traditional bottled water. The cost to the planet might be even higher when you consider that some customers pay to have this "super-premium" water shipped across the country.

Raw water that is advertised as probiotic could be worse than a waste of money and resources, though. If it’s not properly tested, there’s no way to know what you’re getting.

Will GMO Labeling Change Consumer Purchase Decisions?

The passing of H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, mandates the labeling of any food containing genetically modified materials. As written, the legislation requires food packages to indicate the presence of GMOs through a QR code, symbol or plain text. Critics, including the Food and Drug Administration, believe the bill's limited definition of “bioengineering” is overly narrow, as it does include gene editing, the process by which a cell’s DNA is replaced, added to or deleted. Nonetheless, some form of labeling is imminent and inevitable. What isn't known is how these specifications, no matter their form, will impact consumer purchasing decisions.

Studies have shown purchase decisions are driven by a number of factors.
Along with the primary drivers of sensory characteristics and price, many buyers consider ingredient lists, allergen warnings and nutritional information. However, research indicates conventional shoppers are more likely to be attached to specific brands; whereas consumers with a preference for organic products are not brand-loyal so much as they seek organic products in general.  Similarly, the customers who regularly buy organic brands are less inclined to research whether they are considered sustainable or ethical, perhaps believing the designation implies as much.

While it’s not possible to foresee the exact outcomes of GMO labeling, a reasonable prediction can be made from the current labeling efforts of several major food brands. Beginning in 2016, General Mills, Campbells and Mars, Inc., as well as Kelloggs, Frito-Lay and ConAgra began identifying products containing genetically modified ingredients. This was done in accordance with the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 and involved labels with language such as “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”

In an interview with The Organic and Non-GMO Report, General Mills' media relations representative Bridget Christenson revealed zero impact to company sales, stating, “We haven’t noted any strong consumer response, and haven’t seen any impact on sales.” Similarly, Thomas Hushen, a media representative at Campbell’s, echoed similar reactions, disclosing, “Regarding sales, there are a variety of factors that impact sales and we can’t attribute changes to any one thing. It (labeling) was a popular decision in the eyes of consumers and customers.”

Although product appearance and price point are believed to be the most significant drivers of consumer purchase decisions by American shoppers, a 2011 study by Elise Golan and Kuchler, economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, looked into the habits of consumers in countries already requiring labels to identify genetically modified products. In their study, the economists noted little to no impact, stating “labels are generally a weak policy tool for changing consumer consumption behavior,” because they “generally fail to get consumers’ attention.” Moreover, their research indicated most individuals make impulse-driven food purchases and rarely consult labels at all.

In Brazil, where a 'transgenic' symbol has been required on all GMO-containing foods since 2001, Golan and Kuchler found many consumers were actually drawn to the products bearing the symbol, particularly if they claimed to possess a nutritional advantage.

While it’s fair to presume the current interest in organic and natural foods will be a strong, positive driver for non-GMO labeled products, current studies indicate the average consumer is unlikely to note or be particularly concerned whether a product has been produced with genetically enhanced ingredients, likely electing instead to maintain loyalty to brands they already know and trust.

What about the organic or health-conscious consumer?
The Organic Trade Administration reports that U.S. sales of organic products increased 11% in 2017, representing more than $39 billion in overall purchases. Currently, it's estimated that almost five percent of all U.S. food sales are comprised of organic products. On that note, it's safe to assume those already inclined to read labels and evaluate nutritional information are most likely to recognize and respond to a GMO designation. Nonetheless, although GMO labeling will likely increase the perceived value and justify higher costs for non-GMO goods among health-conscious consumers, it is still just a small fraction of the population.

That fact, coupled with the known impacts of widespread, self-initiated labeling at companies like Campbell's and General Mills, lead to the reasonable conclusion that GMO labeling won’t have a significant impact on the majority of consumer purchasing decisions. Likewise, the smaller segment of consumers concerned with nutritional data are likely to respond to the information based on their own pre-existing beliefs and values.

Whitepaper: Food Safety – Restoring Public Confidence

It’s not if, but when a food crisis occurs, will your food brand be ready? Apron’s research team surveyed 850 people to uncover their greatest food fears and the list may surprise you.

When asked which foods consumers worried about most, the following five rose to the top:

  1. Seafood
  2. Meat
  3. Prepared/take out foods
  4. Fresh produce
  5. Dairy products

Uncovering the food fears was only part of the study. As PR people, we really wanted to know what brands had to do to regain trust from consumers after a food crisis.

The short answer is this: Once the public decides a food product is unsafe, winning back confidence is tough. According to our research, the starting point is to present scientific evidence using recognized and credentialed health experts as the messengers. The standard and over-used practices of issuing apologies or developing re-purchase incentives doesn’t register as a reason to believe the food is once again safe. Even long established beloved brands cannot get away with just saying "I'm sorry, it won't happen again."

The story around the Blue Bell ice cream recall serves as a cautionary tale of the role food safety plays in any food company’s brand value.

At least 10 listeria cases - three of them fatal - were linked to ice cream from Blue Bell. The company's first response was a public apology from the CEO. Because of Blue Bell’s prominence and brand halo, consumers were willing to accept their apology and move on... until the rest of the story emerged.

Blue Bell had known about listeria issues as early as 2007, and because they were not required to report those findings, decided to say nothing to the FDA. The crisis resulted in a series of unfortunate events for the beloved Blue Bell; including, close calls with bankruptcy, lay-offs and furloughs.

Ultimately, Blue Bell pulled it out, but they could have sped their brand recovery if they would have taken steps to increase their company culture of food safety and properly prepared themselves for the inevitable… a food crisis.

They believed they were invincible and struggled to make it out. Who really knows what hides behind the Blue Bell accounting books… but we know they could have done better to mitigate the damage.

If you would like to talk about your brand’s food safety and crisis preparedness plan, give us a call, we’ve got you covered.

Chipotle’s Response to E. Coli Woes

Chipotle has been rocked this year, and the past few years it seems, by foodborne illness. In their third and most significant issue of 2015, they temporarily shuttered 43 locations in the Pacific Northwest due to an E. coli outbreak.

Just as those restaurants were reopening, the CDC reported the E. coli issue had spread to five new states (California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota).

Then, to escalate matters, the CDC also identified norovirus had sickened 140 college students at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston, leading to the closure of that location.

Not a fun time for Chipotle, but the brand has responded in an incredibly proactive, transparent manner. They’ve gone so far as to declare they will be THE global leader in food safety.

“We have this desire to be the safest place to eat,” said Steve Ells, Chipotle chairman, founder and co-CEO. “We’re serving extraordinary quality ingredients, and that’s been something in place for many, many years now, and we’re best in the world at that. We’re going to be the best in the world at food safety, and we’re taking this very, very seriously.”

Based on the research we conducted earlier this year, we know consumers look for a proactive response along with third-party validation after a food safety issue:

Food Infographic

We can use Hearit’s model of apologia to diagnose Chipotle’s response. The model tells us a company can select one of three responses when facing a reputation issue.

  • Option 1: Redefinition – this strategy of redefinition relies heavily on the use of dissociation; it’s the technique to use when allegations are justifiably deniable.
  • Option 2: Scapegoating – this strategy works by transferring guilt from an organization to an individual or isolated group; this technique requires the company to acknowledge wrongdoing, but then shift blame onto ‘rogue’ individuals or groups of employees.
  • Option 3: Corrective Action – this strategy seeks to convince the public the organization is responding to and has learned from its wrongdoing – and furthermore – has instituted controls to ensure the transgression won’t happen again.

Chipotle is clearly exercising the corrective action option – they are countering the magnitude of this issue with an equally sized response – full-page ads in newspapers across the country, for instance. Their messaging conveys genuine remorse for what happened and demonstrates their commitment to prevention of another foodborne illness outbreak.

Food Safety Plan

The open letter from founder Steve Ells hit on all the messages consumers want to hear. He expresses his apologies for what has taken place and calls it “completely unacceptable.” He talks about collaborating “with preeminent food safety experts” to validate their processes – something we know from our research consumers expect – and their unprecedented testing process. Near the end of the letter, he makes a big promise: “we are confident that we can achieve near zero risk.”

Well done, Chipotle. Now they just have to make it true and keep it true. They can’t afford another crisis. If one food thing came from this, it’s that Chipotle has in many ways revolutionized the restaurant industry, and their ingredient transparency has helped reshape consumer expectations.

Can Your Organization’s Food Crisis Send You to Jail?

Consumers are paying more attention to their food than ever. This focus goes beyond just the ingredients and nutritional data – consumers are looking more and more at how and where their food is made. Going beyond the food they eat, consumers are putting the companies under the microscope to see if they are acting as good corporate stewards.

That increased attention means consumers are holding brands more responsible for their actions than ever before. Food safety issues are magnified by increased media attention and the ability of social media to perpetuate the news cycle, making the job of a communications team in the food space more difficult.

All of these factors combine into an interesting trend: criminal charges in food safety issues. A recent Time article points to four convictions in foodborne illness outbreaks over the last couple years.

Take the case of Stewart Parnell, former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). PCA was identified in 2009 as the source of a massive salmonella outbreak that made hundreds sick and caused at least nine deaths. Prosecutors argued Parnell knew about the tainted product and famously told a plant manager to “Just ship it.” And, according to evidence, Parnell and his team fabricated certificates of analysis that state the food at issue was free of pathogens, when there had been no testing done or the tests had in fact revealed the presence of pathogens.

Parnell was convicted of 76 federal counts, including knowingly shipping tainted food across state lines, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and wire fraud. He will serve 28 years in prison.

There have been other recent cases of criminal charges for food safety issues. In Colorado, 33 people died from listeria after an outbreak found in cantaloupe originating from Jensen Farms. The owners, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, each received five years of probation and $150,000 in fines.

Food safety attorney Shawn Stevens says, “the FDA is just beginning to dip its toes in the water as it relates to how much and how often it will in fact use criminal sanctions…[the FDA] will pick some of the more high profile cases, bring criminal charges, and then use the media attention as a tool to show the public and corporate America that the agency is really serious about food safety.”

This trend adds another layer of anxiety for food producers, but also serves as a reminder of the communication opportunities we have. Food brands should regularly talk about the steps they take to maintain a safe product, whether that’s in social media or inviting a reporter to tour a manufacturing facility. Consumers are looking for transparency, as seen by McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” video series, giving viewers an up-close look at their manufacturing practices. And, by saying it publicly, the company will have to uphold their commitment to food safety. As the saying goes, we will speak it into existence.

Building Trust in the Food Industry

Consumer confidence (or lack of) in our food supply is a hot issue. Whether it’s a fear of contamination due to recent recalls affecting trusted brands (Chipotle, Blue Bell, Dole to name a few) or distrust of GMOs, it seems like everything related to the food we eat is up for debate.

According to National Geographic, article the general public has started to doubt science, studies and proven scientific facts, from fluoridation (adding small amounts of fluoride to our water to improve dental health) to climate change. This skepticism has now turned to our food sources, with many consumers approaching the mass food market with distrust.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the majority of the general public (57 percent) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while only 37 percent say such foods are safe. That’s compared to 88 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science who say GM foods are generally safe. The gap between citizens and scientists in seeing GM foods as safe is 51 percentage points. Some might see that gap more like a river.

The internet has contributed to the skepticism, “Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for…skeptics and doubters of all kinds to find their own information and experts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions—elite universities, encyclopedias, major news organizations, even National Geographic—served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democratized information, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, it has made it possible to live in a ‘filter bubble’ that lets in only the information with which you already agree.”

For example, Food Babe used to eat a lot of junk food which landed her in the hospital, where she had a revelation to start living a healthy life. Now, she has a really popular blog where she investigates “what is really in our food, how is it grown and what chemicals are used in its production… As I began to learn more, I was no longer duped by big business marketing tactics, confused by lengthy food labels, and it became easier for me to live in this over-processed world.”

The high level of trust placed in self-proclaimed experts like the Food Babe and media personalities like Dr. Phil is problematic for those who are actually the authority in the food space. When consumers are listening more to celebrities than scientists, it’s impossible to communicate in a transparent way and build credibility. Consumers have an emotional tie to celebrity personalities, resulting in trust. Scientists, on the other hand, are strangers and met with doubt because they’re unknown.

The food industry has a real challenge on its hands. Where do they start when consumers are more apt to follow someone with no formal science education than the most credible subject matter experts – actual scientists?

According to Cialdini’s Core Motives model, the food community needs to reduce consumer uncertainty. To do that, we look can use one of two outreach tactics in the model: Consensus and Authority.

The lack of trust in the food industry lies with the Authority outreach tactic. Self-made celebrities have established themselves as the authority on food sourcing and safety, and the food community needs to combat these misperceptions with their own credible, sound authority figures. And who better to talk about food science than the ones studying it – the food scientists themselves?

If the food community can communicate the science they are using to make decisions about what we eat then they have a chance to make an impact. The outcome goal shouldn’t be blind faith, but rather pushing consumers to look beyond the fear factor and seek out sources on both sides of the story.