Reflection: Marketing’s Role in Fresh Produce Recalls and Other Crises

The media furor from the recent romaine lettuce crisis and subsequent recall has (mostly) died down, but that doesn’t mean that we as an industry now have the luxury to return to “business as usual.” In fact, this is the ideal time to think critically about how we can better prepare ourselves to mitigate the consequences of food safety scares as they occur—particularly the ensuing changes in public perception. 

But why talk about this now? After all, it isn’t like this issue was particularly unique. Not that anyone really needs another reminder of the way it all went down, but let’s revisit how November’s romaine crisis (like most others) roughly played out:

  1. People in 11+ states come down with the E. coli bacteria
  2. CDC interviews sick and healthy individuals and narrows the cause to be romaine lettuce
  3. CDC puts out statement on November 20th warning consumers, retailers, and restaurants not to “eat, serve, or sell any romaine lettuce” until the outbreak is resolved
  4. Retailers and other food establishments comply and pull all romaine from store shelves in order to provide a “clean break” between safe and potentially contaminated lettuce
  5. National and local media release a number of news reports about the E. coli outbreak. (This time, the issue happened to occur during a particularly slow news cycle right before the Thanksgiving holiday, which meant the romaine recall seemed to be discussed nonstop!)
  6. FDA isolates the issue to one grower in one region of the country on December 13th (23 days after the initial warning) and clears romaine from all regions for safe eating

Post-Recall: Where Do We Go From Here?

Here’s our conundrum: During any food safety crisis, many companies in this industry are completely at the mercy of 1.) the CDC and FDA, and 2.) the media, which we rely on to be properly informed and then to accurately report the facts—especially when the “sensational” aspect of the recall is complete. So how do we quickly and concisely educate the public during crisis situations, in order to help people make informed, safe, and healthy food-purchasing decisions? What is this industry doing to prevent the next food safety issue from causing such great financial loss to the many growers, shippers, retailers, and restaurants who have nothing to do with the problem?

While fresh produce is continuing to improve and evolve related to food safety, and industry organizations are constantly finding ways to proactively communicate better with government entities, there still remains a HUGE gap in our ability to communicate important messages directly to consumers in a timely manner. Despite progress and diligent efforts in this direction, even PMA, United, and all our trade publications put together do not have enough of a voice or relationship with consumers to share our stories, individual or collective. To be successful in this endeavor, fresh produce marketers will have to own the power and responsibility to communicate with the people who buy and consume our products.

And that ability, friends, is exactly where marketing comes in.

Marketing’s Role in a Food Safety Crisis

Think of each person—every grower, shipper, retailer, marketer—impacted by this recent crisis and consider the following scenario. What if within 24 hours after the news broke, every company (especially those working to build brands) had the capability to answer consumer questions and provide reassurance of product safety by:

  • Updating their company website and blog
  • Sending out a consumer email alert
  • Posting (and responding!) on all company social media channels
  • Communicating directly with—and providing current, accurate information to—the local and national press

What kind of difference could those actions have made on consumer perception of and trust in these brands—in addition to helping at least partially eliminate the widespread revenue loss for all involved, namely growers?

Although we as an industry continue to unite to improve labeling processes and other food safety procedures, many companies still don’t value marketing’s inherent ability to control the narrative by educating and reassuring consumers. And until we do this on a much larger scale, we remain a mostly commoditized food group at the mercy of others.

The Marketing ROI You Should be Asking About

All too often, we maintain a laser-focus on the Return on Investment of marketing activities when things are good—but what about the *other* ROI, meaning the “Risk of Inactivity,” when things go awry? We spend so much time questioning the validity of marketing directly to consumers, but what about in cases like this?

When it comes to marketing, inaction is a decision. When a company fails to build and maintain websites, neglects public relations entirely, or disregards the importance of active, engaged social media channels, it has already determined its own fate during the next crisis. Clearly, then, when it comes to crisis communications, the benefits of investing in marketing far outweigh any potential negatives.

When marketing is done right, each action will serve to help build your brand equity, increase sales, and—in the event of a crisis—serve as your vehicle for communicating your truth to people who already trust you based on regularly executed marketing activities. Assuming those reading this post do follow the social platforms of several fresh brands that were implicated in the recall based on what they grow, you can testify to the fact that there was a clear difference in the responses some brands were able to deploy versus the response (or lack thereof) of companies that have little or no voice.

A Fresh Produce Marketer’s Call: Building Consumer Perception and Trust

As marketers, we typically wouldn’t advocate that a direct-to-consumer marketing plan be based on the possibility of something negative happening, but the reality is that those things are going to happen, and it’s up to us to be prepared for it. In a crisis, our role is to remind people that fresh produce is one of the safest possible food options, despite any panic following media reports.

We know that fresh produce consumption has a clear impact on chronic disease prevention and overall health and wellness—we can’t allow recall-related trepidation and misunderstanding to scare consumers away from our products. However, this will continue to be the reality we face until more industry decision-makers begin to understand that marketing can (and should!) have a much greater role in education and ensuring long-term company health—in good times and in the midst of challenges.

Note: For a more detailed discussion of CDC and FDA communication with the fresh produce industry during a crisis, we suggest reading this ANUK interview with Jennifer McEntire, VP of Food Safety & Technology at United Fresh. We also highly recommend this thought piece by Jim Prevor, entitled “Lettuce Try Not to Panic.”

Dan’l Mackey Almy’s passion for fresh produce has paved the way for her dynamic career as an industry trailblazer. After selling produce for a decade, she recognized that in order for the industry to progress, it would be necessary for fresh produce companies to focus on how to market products more effectively. Since 2004, she has worked alongside the DMA Solutions team and progressive clients to transform marketing and elevate brands in a once commodity-centric industry. The DMA team is guided by the belief that when anyone in this sector flourishes, there is a net-positive result on people, communities, and society.

For more fresh produce marketing inspiration and insight from the DMA Solutions team, follow us on Twitter at @TheCoreBlog.