I seem to have been writing about an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg associated with Foster Farms raw chicken for a year or more now. That’s probably because that’s how long it has been going on, with 621 people having been affected as of 2 July. The likely source was identified a year ago, but despite widespread publicity and public health warnings from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Foster Farms decided not to issue a voluntary recall and continued to produce and market raw chicken products as normal. Now there has been a change of heart, and on 3 July the company issued a recall for an undetermined amount (reported to be more than 1 million pounds) of fresh and frozen raw chicken because of possible contamination with “a particular strain” of Salmonella Heidelberg.
What has changed? At first it seems that Foster Farms were not persuaded to issue a recall notice because the evidence linking their products with the outbreak was circumstantial rather than direct. Any recall decision would be at the discretion of the company and, without clear proof that they were to blame, Foster Farms declined to act, as they were entitled to do. But now the circumstances have changed. The FSIS has identified one of the outbreak strains of S. Heidelberg in an intact pack of Foster Farms brand chicken collected from the home of a person infected by the same strain in California. That is as close to a smoking gun as you are ever going to get when it comes to pinning down the source of an outbreak. That left the company with little alternative but to recall chicken from the same production dates as the contaminated sample.
Foster Farms chicken has been getting negative publicity for the last year, which must have impacted on sales, and has been widely criticised for not recalling products earlier. It seems to me that the damage to the company’s reputation could easily have been minimised, and perhaps even avoided, by a different approach. By accepting some responsibility earlier and not waiting for absolute proof, Foster Farms would have taken a short-term hit, but might have recovered relatively quickly. The irony is that the company has apparently been taking action to reduce contamination rates at its plants in California for some time and has also announced that it has developed ways to cut the incidence of Salmonella in products from its Washington facility down to 2%. This paints a very favourable picture of a business at the cutting edge of improving food safety rather than one unwilling to accept responsibility.
With the benefit of the doubt, this affair could be dismissed as a PR misjudgement – not helped by the announcement of a recall immediately before a public holiday – but there is a wider message for all food businesses. It is rarely a good idea to aim for ‘business as usual’ if the safety of a product is in question, even if only by implication. Responding with openness and demonstrating a willingness to do what is necessary to put things right is much more likely to bear fruit in the long run.