Recently here at Nelson-Jameson, we had an employee deal with a food safety issue where they had purchased a compromised food item. Though not a pleasant experience, the process of dealing with the incident has become a learning experience for those of us at Nelson-Jameson that work on food safety. As we discussed the person’s ordeal over several weeks, one issue came up repeatedly in our conversations. More than anything, communication was key for this individual. The most reassuring times for them came when the company effectively communicated with them about the process and their efforts to rectify the situation. The most frustrating points came when the customer was continually referred to others (i.e. vendors, retail outlets, producers, etc.) in the production/distribution process to find answers. To the customer these conversations became frustrating where they, “began to feel like the middleman…keeping all of these people on the same page and in communication.”

Prevention is often the focus of many operators. This definitely should be the case, but it is also important to consider how your operation would react to a food safety issue once the product has reached the consumer. There are federal laws and procedures that dictate what a company should do in a recall situation, but a company shouldn't count on outside parties to come in and clean up all of their messes. The fundamental need for communication within your company is as important as your communication to outside parties or regulators. Good communication is a compass that can help steer your operation through rough waters.

Say, for instance, a customer found a piece of a glove or a band-aid in their food… What are you going to do when that customer calls to complain? Who will speak to them? How will you rectify the situation? Do any authorities need to be alerted? Will you need to seek legal council? How will you deal with potentially fraudulent claims? If there are damages, who will pay for it...will you hold your suppliers responsible, or should the retail outlet take care of it, or is it on you, etc.?

There are a lot of questions that can come up. Customers in this kind of situation can feel blown off or feel a sense of frustration as parties involved in the creation and sale of that product go back and forth. This is not a time to further irritate the victim of a food safety issue.

Know your line of communications and have your responsibilities assigned before such an incident occurs. The creation of one food product can involve many parties and the answers are not always easy to come by. Hence, getting your legal ducks in a row and your operational procedures down before the fact can save a lot of time that would be spent bumbling through the process, which can add up in terms of cost quickly.

Each operation is different and demands differing approaches to resolving such issues. One thing that we all share in common though, is that mistakes can happen at any facility. With some discussion and planning, you can assure your business will communicate externally and within the company with precision and direction that will mean a great deal to customers and to your employees negotiating the difficult waters of a food safety complaint.