Apple and pear industry groups will work together to develop a national cross-jurisdictional crisis management plan to ensure consumers have access to clear, consistent, and fact-based information in the event of any future concerns around food safety.
State apple and pear association representatives meeting at an APAL-convened gathering in Melbourne on 8 October to discuss common issues and opportunities for future collaboration agreed on the need for a national response plan.
One of the biggest talking points on the day was the handling of the recent food tampering incident involving sewing needles in strawberries and the lack of a coordinated response.
Growcom Chief Advocate Rachel MacKenzie said conflicting consumer advice and the lack of a central point for information had contributed to confusion and the escalation of the crisis.
“The lack of protocols around messaging caused retailers to remove the product from shelves, which had an enormous impact on growers,” Rachel said.
This impact was exacerbated by the fact that health and police officials are state-based, rather than federal, resulting in multiple spokesmen communicating different messages.
Growcom CEO David Thomson said some funding had been made available for crisis management and it was important that this was spent wisely on a collaborative approach involving all stakeholders, including retailers.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has been tasked with providing a report to Federal Minister Greg Hunt by the end of the month with recommendations on how a future crisis could be better managed. Part of these recommendations should form a coordinated crisis management plan for the apple and pear industry.
APAL’s new Head of Government Relations & Advocacy Jeremy Griffith highlighted the importance of having a well-understood and effective crisis management plan, both at industry and at individual organizational level.
“Food tampering has put a spotlight on the entire industry and shows why everyone should have a well-documented crisis management plan,” Jeremy said.
“But, it’s important to review the plan regularly – don’t wait for a crisis to read it.”
A crisis management plan provides vital information outlining the necessary steps to take when a crisis hits, including a list of major stakeholders and a communications plan.
Jeremy drew examples from his recent involvement as a fact checker for the 2018 Commonwealth Games where he was on call to respond to any crisis that might occur. He explained the importance of separating the responsibility of fact checking from the responsibility of communicating and outlined several key points of a crisis management plan including: who to contact; what to say; when to say it; and who needs to be available.
Jeremy explained that it’s essential for industry organisations to ensure key management, the board, and key stakeholders have the confidence in the process prior to the crisis. If they don’t understand, or don’t have confidence in it, it is unlikely they will follow it during a crisis.
“Once you’ve called the crisis it’s your priority to sit down with the CEO and senior management as soon as possible,” Jeremy said.
“You want the people in the room who can answer as many of the critical questions as they can, ensuring all parts of the business are covered.”
Rachel said a turning point in the strawberry tampering crisis was the broadcast of an interview with a grower which prompted a surge in consumer support for strawberry growers.
Messaging is critical. The difference between ‘throw-out’ and ‘cut-up’ the strawberries had a profound impact on how the crisis unfolded. Industry was greatly concerned that this was the initial message that was delivered to the public without any consultation with them. In addition, the media discussed the event as a ‘contamination’, whereas the message of ‘food tampering’ was more accurate.
“Make sure your stakeholders hear from you first, even if it is no more than highlighting what has occurred and that you are following it up. If you miss the boat by two or three hours, you’re in trouble,” Jeremy said.
“Keep your statements to a minimum to avoid ambiguity, don’t have any speculation or wiggle room, verify your facts, and double-check everything.
“Above all else, remain calm.”