Food safety and crisis management – five key points

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What to do in a food safety crisis and when to recall product is an issue that all companies should be ready for – here are five key points that should underpin everything you do.

1. You won’t have all the information straight away

A food contamination or safety event doesn’t simply occur with all the results available to you. There might be a single complaint or a couple with similarities, there might be an unusual quality test result received. It is then up to you as a responsible company to investigate, swiftly and effectively collating the information you need to assess the severity of the potential hazard and the likelihood of it occurring.

2. Prioritise safety

Although this is listed as number two it is the mantra that every responsible company, and indeed director, needs to repeat throughout any crisis scenario. This is why millions of batches or product is recalled over the potential for a single batch contamination with plastic. Why? The potential for a choking hazard. If in any doubt – act. Ring-fence questionable product away from supply chains until investigations are completed. Withdraw product from supply chains. Withdraw or recall product from consumers if there is any actual health hazard.

3. Be proportionate

Collate your information, carry out your investigation and notify competent authorities of the actions you are taking.

If you are following a proactive investigation and prioritising safety there is no need to immediately notify the Food Standards Agency or recall without an indication that there may be a hazard to human health.

Take legal advice, if there is no breach of the food safety requirements there is no obligation to notify competent authorities but this requires a full investigation and assessment.

NB it is always proportionate to prioritise safety.

4. Be transparent

At the same time, be transparent. Have your crisis management plan written down, practice it. Record all the relevant information you may need, including contact details of local authority trading standards officer, suppliers, customers, experts, test labs, insurers and lawyers.

Consider where your interests differ from those of your insurer and ensure you have your own appropriate legal protection. Consider your supply and liability agreements before any incident occurs so that you know the level of your potential risks. Consider who if anyone within the company will make any public statements. Have standard templates prepared to update those in the supply chain where necessary.

Be confident that by prioritising safety and having clear management and risk assessment principles you are a responsible company and have nothing to hide. If something does go wrong be clear about what it was, what was affected and what you have done about it.

5. Learn your lessons

  • What went wrong?
  • What measures can you implement to stop it happening again?

  • Implement them

A common mistake is after an incident for a company to have an open, non-privileged document listing recommendations that they have not then prioritised implementing. If any subsequent event were to arise they have then fallen short of their own stated standards. Use qualified legal support to draft your recommendations and keep any document referencing these as confidential and privileged until those recommendations are carried out.

Highlight the extra steps you are taking if these are over and above the industry norms – gain an advantage over your competitors, be it on the basis of quality, security or trust.

Finally, remember to be proactive: continuously review and test your plans and processes. Be aware of the changing market and the pressures/vulnerabilities your supply chain may be under and adjust your security and test measures accordingly.

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