Food Safety — Restoring Public Confidence

Seafood. That category of food ranks highest in consumer concern for safety based on an 850-person panel survey recently completed by Hahn Public’s Food and Farm communications team.

Meat ranks second highest on the concern scale with Prepared/Take-out Foods, Fresh Produce and Dairy following in order.

In the study, respondents were asked about a number of different attitudinal aspects of food safety and what actions they believe need to take place once trust in the safety of a food group has been shaken by negative news.

The short answer is this: Once the public decides a food product is unsafe, winning back confidence is tough. The starting point is to present scientific evidence using recognized and credentialed health experts as the messengers. Issuing apologies or developing re-purchase incentives barely register as reasons to believe the food is once again safe.

The story unfolding around the Blue Bell ice cream recall serves as a cautionary tale of the role food safety plays in their brand value.

At least 10 listeria cases — three of them fatal — have been linked to ice cream from Blue Bell. One of the company’s first responses was a public apology from CEO and President Paul Kruse. Tapping into their bank of goodwill, the company received strong support from fans and their Brenham, Texas headquarters community.

Then, reports emerged that Blue Bell had known about listeria issues as early as 2007, and because they were not required to report those findings, they said nothing to the FDA. Blue Bell spokesperson Joe Robertson said the company took corrective actions after inspections identifying the presence of listeria. David Acheson, former FDA commissioner of foods and food safety consultant, commented that in the light of these reports, “the food safety culture was not there.”

The damage is done. The venerable Texas ice cream icon is now suffering through a complete product recall and a shut down of its product-making operations. For some sense of the financial blow this recall is taking, Blue Bell’s 2014 sales were $628 million. Now, the ice cream maker has agreed to a deal with regulators that will keep it from selling its products for a year until tests for contamination come back with a clean bill of health.

As the second largest employer in Brenham, a third of its employees have been laid off, choking the $98 million annual contribution to the local economy. The wealth of goodwill within the community seems to be drying up as uncertainty grows and the impact ripples through all Brenham businesses. Still, there is strong support for the home team. They are pulling for a comeback, but the road to recovery will be long and hard.

Based on the perspective of our 850-person panel, the recovery roadmap for Blue Bell can start with three important steps:

  • First, Blue Bell needs to embed a quality culture in every aspect of their operation. At the right moment in time, they should enlist experts in their communications to consumers and stress how the company has improved its manufacturing processes and statistically reduced the potential of defects to near zero.
  • Second, the company should consider going above and beyond regulator requirements by showing consumers its product is as safe as it can be by sealing each container with a foil cover and wrapping each lid with a plastic band — much like medicine is packaged. While these additional packaging elements may not actually improve food safety from a scientific perspective they appear as evidence of safety to consumers.
  • Finally, Blue Bell is going to need to shake off its reputation as a company that suppresses food safety information by providing open access to its safety inspection reports. It should consider posting the evidence of its inspections online and have inspectors provide video-based candid commentary on the scoring criteria each time an inspection is complete.

Based on our food safety survey, the good news is that consumers will return to a brand. It’s a tough journey, but it can be made. Good luck to Blue Bell as it prepares to take its next big steps.

Download the full report:

Originally published at on June 26, 2015.

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