By Fflur Sheppard

Botulism. Salmonella. Contaminated. These are not words anyone wants to see linked to their favourite food, never mind one of their products.

But about once a week, someone in the food industry – retailer or manufacturer – will have to recall produce because it poses a risk to health or safety.

There were two of note last week. Some batches of Young’s Chip Shop Fish Cakes were recalled because of foreign bodies. And the supermarket Morrisons had to recall a pasta dish because it contained celery, a potential allergen, which was not listed on the ingredients.

I will guarantee you one thing. These dishes will soon back on the menu in homes across the UK because both issues have been dealt with in a cool, calm and clear way to avoid panic and lasting damage. 

There are some fairly simple principles for handling a recall. Once you know there is a problem, you have to get that news out. Being specific about the detail is key. Manufacturers can determine which product batch was the last to pass safety tests and which need to be recalled. The problem may end up being relatively contained.

Then, communicate that information in a suitable tone. Your brand could have the zaniest advertising and social media presence. But cracking jokes about a choking hazard helps no one. Let consumers know which product, produced between which dates, is affected by which issue. Tell them how to get a refund or replacement, and make that happen.

There’s a fine line to walk here, you can’t be dismissive of the problem, but neither should you be alarmist – or you could end up with hordes of people screaming their heads off in supermarkets.

And remember that retailers, not just shoppers, need to be kept fully engaged. It’s confusing for people to be told to bring products to customer services if the worker there knows nothing whatsoever about the recall.

Get this right and you should have no concerns about having to rebuild your reputation – you have spotted the problem, informed customers and remedied the situation. But be careful about the tone you take in the following days and weeks, and how the recall may affect your onward marketing strategy.

Think about last year’s Mars recall. Tests revealed salmonella in some of its chocolates. Mars followed the steps, addressed the situation and now? Well, it’s not put me off Minstrels.

Loyd Grossman’s sauces even survived botulism toxins contaminating its jars in 2010 – and it doesn’t get much scarier than botulism.

There have been times when a food scandal has had much wider-reaching consequences. It took the egg industry years, and category-wide change, to recover from health minister Edwina Currie’s comments about salmonella in 1988. The horsemeat scandal required a similar effort. It wasn’t unsafe to eat. But it was not what people had bought and it exposed the potential risk of a product which could not be traced back to source.

In instances such as those, it’s a systemic issue and you have to re-establish trust, right through the supply chain, through retailers and to the shopper. And to do that, you have to make your highest standards even higher.

For help and advice call our crisis management experts now on 0800 612 9890