Damage Limitation

Many of you doubtless read, heard or saw the news regarding the terrible food safety crisis that the Coca-Cola Co. experienced in Europe, primarily in Belgium, in June.

The official Coca-Cola story is that there were two causes to the outbreak illness purported to be related to drinking Coke products. One was a bad batch of carbon dioxide used at a bottling plant in Antwerp. The other was a fungicide used on storage pallets at a plant in Dunkirk – that somehow got on cans of products – the fumes of which made everyone sick.

The first important point for the produce industry to realize is that this “explanation” is probably false. There is no reason to believe that anyone was made sick by these events. In fact, there is no reason to believe that Coca-Cola products made anyone sick at all.

The fact that the company fell on its sword and announced its fault is more testimony to the latest trends in public relations than it is to scientific evidence of food safety problems. The trendy belief in PR circles is that, to minimize damage, companies should quickly accept fault, identify a cause, then announce steps to make sure the situation never happens again.

Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc., the world’s largest bottler of Coke and a company partially owned by the Coca-Cola Co., owns the bottling and canning operations in the relevant area. After a few days during which the staff of Coca-Cola Enterprises hesitated to accept blame for that which they were blameless, top PR personnel from Coke in Atlanta flew in to engage in self-flagellation.

What about all those people who claim they got sick? Remember this whole chain of events took place when Belgians were already panicky over the safety of their food supply. Evidence that dioxin-contaminated animal feed may have allowed the carcinogen into parts of the food supply had already led to the withdrawal of loads of product from Belgian shelves.

Those reported waves of sick school children were far more likely to be suffering from “mass sociogenic illness”, as the British medical journal Lancet reported after reviewing a study of the affair by Belgian academics, rather than some bizarre contamination in the beverages.

So, here is lesson number one: You don’t actually have to suffer a food safety problem to have your product withdrawn from the market. You just need a little hysteria.

We should not be under the delusion that even if HACCP procedures are followed properly, such guidelines will protect the produce industry against food safety scares.

These scares are costly. Coca-Cola Enterprises estimated a total loss in sales of $60 million attributed to the crisis, assuming the market promptly recovers.

In evaluating the Coca-Cola episode, note how effectively the impact of the scare was neutralized by Coke’s ability to easily identify the source of each bottle or can of Coke. Despite this catastrophe, Coke’s Greater Europe Group expects that quarterly sales were down only from 6 to 7 percent. In other words, consumers in the U.K. or in Italy went about drinking their Coca-Cola even while the news made headlines.

This points to a serious objective that the produce industry should be striving to obtain: Limiting damage in the event of a future food safety scare.

The imperative now is to ensure that produce can be tracked back as far as possible. This way, if – no, make that when – a problem develops, the industry can reassure both trade buyers and consumers that the problem has been isolated to a specific packinghouse and that such product can be recalled or removed from the shelves. This, of course, means that the stores that have bought product can be identified.

With packaged items, this is relatively easy and in some cases is already being done. The packaging needs to be coded to indicate when and where it was packed. Bulk product is more problematic but not impossible: Bar codes can be, and in some cases are being, applied to each pallet. With ink jet technology, we could ink jet each carton. PLU codes applied by packingsheds could also contain a code identifying the packinghouse. Vendors would need to maintain records crossing this data with their sales records so that who bought what packinghouses’s product when could quickly be determined.

Wholesalers and retailers would have to scan these bar codes. The source-placed PLU stickers with identifying codes would be ignored unless a food safety crisis led to a need to reassure the public that particular codes were recalled.

For an industry not that many years from operating without refrigeration, these measures may seem like overkill. But the $60 million dollars in sales Coke says it lost was surely a drop in the bucket compared to the billions that would have been lost had Coke been unable to identify the source of the beverage. Then everyone in the world would have stopped drinking Coca-Cola products until things were figured out.

That a vivid imagination could cause such losses is frightening and should be a wake-up call for our media and government. The industry can’t count on it, though. Produce industry leadership has to count on dealing with such a problem, real or imagined, and start figuring out how to minimize damage.