As a 15-year food inspector veteran, I’ve seen a lot.  Some of the things that I’ve had to write up as a critical violation still make my stomach churn today, but those flagrant fouls of food prep were actually few and far between. It was the small stuff that would trip up a restaurant and make them examine their chosen profession once the critical violations added up and were printed in the local newspaper for the local community to read…and believe me…they read them all. That’s because food safety is something that all of us are concerned about and we pay big bucks to not only fill our tummies with the delectable fast-food hamburger, but to be safe as we eat. Then there are those times when Salmonella and E.coli make their way through the proper channels of food preparation and into our digestive system, causing the normal cases of vomiting and diarrhea. But then there are those unfortunate circumstances when one upset tummy turns to fifteen and the restaurant owner has a full-blown food-borne illness outbreak. Worse yet, the outbreak leads to hospitalization of some patients and unfortunately death in others.

And those patrons who get sick are not the only ones talking about the outbreak. Word spreads quick and before you know it, your local newspaper is talking to your local health department and heaven forbid you get a call from your regional television news station who is all to eager to air their findings on the six o’clock evening news. Before you know it, your food establishment is under investigation and you are dangerously close to losing your credibility, your customers, and ultimately your business. 

I’ve seen it happen.  

During a previous life as an Environmental Health Specialist and food inspector, we had an outbreak of Hepatitis A (not to be confused with the sexually transmitted Hepatitis C) which is spread through fecal-oral routes. In other words, someone who was sick with the disease didn’t wash their hands after using the restroom and spread it through their preparation of food. There were two restaurants who were passing the disease and after the initial investigation, employees were found to have the illness yet reported to work anyway, spreading it through the food they prepared. The word got out to local and state media and within two days, the cases were reported on all of Indiana’s major evening news networks. The ramifications of the newscasts went far beyond any consequences our health department delivered to the two restaurants. Both food establishments lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue and were on the brink of closing their doors. The irony is that one restaurant approached crisis communication efforts correctly and one did not result in further erosion of public trust that their establishment was safe to eat at.

If you’re new to the food establishment business, or even a veteran who may have become a bit too complacent with food safety practices, then this article is for you. Before we get into the communication ramifications, let’s quickly look at what icky illnesses a food-borne outbreak entail: 

What is a Food-borne illness outbreak?

A foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more people experience a similar illness after consuming a common contaminated food or beverage. This definition, provided by health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores the role of a shared source in triggering the illness. Here are key elements of what constitutes a foodborne illness outbreak:

1.    Common Contaminant: The outbreak is typically linked to a specific pathogen, such as bacteria (e.g., Salmonella, E. coli), viruses (e.g., norovirus, hepatitis A), or parasites (e.g., Giardia, Cyclospora). Contaminants can also include toxins or chemicals that are present in the food.

2.    Multiple Cases: An outbreak involves multiple individuals (usually two or more) who have consumed the same contaminated food or drink and exhibit similar symptoms. In some instances, a single case can be considered an outbreak if it involves a rare or highly dangerous pathogen, like botulism.

3.    Traceable Source: Effective outbreak investigations often trace the illness back to a common source, which can be a specific food item, a particular meal, a restaurant, or a food production facility. Identifying the source is crucial for implementing control measures to prevent further cases.

4.    Illness Symptoms: Symptoms of foodborne illness can vary widely depending on the contaminant but commonly include gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes fever. Severe cases can lead to more serious health complications and even death, especially in vulnerable populations like the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.

5.    Public Health Impact: Foodborne illness outbreaks are of significant concern due to their potential to affect a large number of people, disrupt food industries, and impose public health challenges. They often lead to food recalls, changes in food safety regulations, and increased scrutiny of food handling practices.

Investigating and managing foodborne illness outbreaks involves collaboration between various stakeholders, including public health authorities, food producers, distributors, and retailers. Prompt identification, thorough investigation, effective communication, and swift action are essential to control and resolve outbreaks, protecting public health and maintaining consumer confidence.

Foodborne illness outbreaks can occur in various forms, involving different pathogens and food products. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Chipotle E. coli Outbreaks (2015): Chipotle Mexican Grill experienced several outbreaks of E. coli O26 linked to its restaurants in multiple states across the U.S. The outbreaks resulted in significant illness and led to a temporary closure of many Chipotle locations for deep cleaning and overhauling food safety protocols. This incident highlighted the need for stringent food safety measures in the fast-casual dining sector.

  2. Jack in the Box E. coli Outbreak (1993): One of the most infamous foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history involved E. coli O157 in undercooked hamburgers served by Jack in the Box restaurants. This outbreak resulted in over 700 illnesses and four deaths, predominantly affecting young children. The severity of this outbreak led to substantial changes in food safety regulations and cooking standards for ground beef.

  3. Blue Bell Ice Cream Listeria Outbreak (2015): Blue Bell Creameries faced a significant crisis when its products were linked to a listeriosis outbreak. The contamination led to multiple illnesses and fatalities. The company issued a nationwide recall of all its products and temporarily shut down production facilities for extensive cleaning and safety improvements. This incident underscored the risks of Listeria in ready-to-eat dairy products.

  4. Jensen Farms Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak (2011): Listeria monocytogenes contamination in cantaloupes from Jensen Farms caused one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States, with over 30 deaths and numerous illnesses. The outbreak was traced back to unsanitary conditions and inadequate food safety practices at the farm. This event emphasized the importance of safety protocols in produce farming and distribution.

  5. Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella Outbreak (2008-2009): This outbreak was linked to Salmonella contamination in peanut butter and other peanut products produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). The contamination resulted in hundreds of illnesses and several deaths across the United States. It led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and brought attention to the critical need for rigorous oversight and compliance in food manufacturing.

These examples illustrate the diverse nature of foodborne illness outbreaks and the critical need for comprehensive food safety measures across all segments of the food supply chain.

"By prioritizing transparent, accurate, and timely communication, organizations can effectively navigate the crisis and emerge with their credibility and customer base intact."

Why is crisis and risk communication important during a food-borne outbreak?

Crisis and risk communications are crucial during a foodborne outbreak for several reasons, all centered around maintaining public trust, ensuring public safety, and minimizing the outbreak's impact on both health and business operations. Here are the key reasons why these communications are vital:

1.    Protecting Public Health: The primary goal during a foodborne illness outbreak is to protect public health. Effective communication ensures that consumers are promptly informed about the risks, including what foods to avoid, symptoms to watch for, and actions to take if they suspect they have been exposed. Clear and accurate information can prevent further cases of illness by guiding the public to take preventive measures.

2.    Maintaining Trust and Credibility: Transparency during a crisis helps maintain or restore trust in the company and public health authorities. When organizations communicate openly about the issue, what is being done to resolve it, and how they are preventing future incidents, it reassures the public that the situation is being managed responsibly. Conversely, a lack of communication or perceived dishonesty can lead to panic, speculation, and a significant loss of credibility.

3. Managing Panic and Misinformation:

During a crisis, misinformation can spread rapidly, especially through social media. Proactive communication helps control the narrative by providing accurate and timely information, thus reducing the spread of rumors and false information. Clear and consistent messaging from reliable sources can help calm public fears and ensure that people are following appropriate advice.

4. Facilitating Coordination with Stakeholders:

Effective crisis communication is essential for coordinating efforts among various stakeholders, including public health authorities, food safety regulators, healthcare providers, and the media. Consistent and clear communication ensures that all parties are working with the same information, which is crucial for managing the outbreak efficiently and effectively.

5. Mitigating Economic Impact:

Foodborne illness outbreaks can have severe economic consequences for the affected company and the broader food industry. Effective risk communication can help mitigate these impacts by showing that the company is taking decisive action to address the problem. This can preserve customer loyalty, minimize the duration and extent of product recalls, and reduce the overall financial damage. Clear communication about the steps being taken to enhance food safety can also help rebuild the company’s reputation post-crisis.

Crisis and risk communications during a foodborne outbreak are essential for protecting public health, maintaining trust, managing misinformation, ensuring stakeholder coordination, and mitigating economic impacts. By prioritizing transparent, accurate, and timely communication, organizations can effectively navigate the crisis and emerge with their credibility and customer base intact.

Who is responsible for disseminating information during a food-borne illness outbreak?

During a foodborne illness outbreak, multiple stakeholders play crucial roles in disseminating crisis and risk communication. Each has distinct responsibilities to ensure comprehensive and effective communication. Here are the key parties involved:

The Affected Company:

The primary responsibility for crisis communication lies with the company whose product is implicated in the outbreak. This includes issuing initial alerts, providing detailed information about the affected products, outlining steps consumers should take, and updating the public on actions being taken to resolve the issue. The company’s communication team, often led by a public relations (PR) or crisis management team, coordinates these efforts.

Public Health Authorities:

Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom, or equivalent bodies in other countries, play a vital role in disseminating information about the outbreak. They provide updates on the scope of the outbreak, the pathogen involved, the number of affected individuals, and public health recommendations. These authorities work closely with other stakeholders to ensure consistent and accurate messaging.

Regulatory Agencies:

Food safety regulatory bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are responsible for monitoring the safety of food products and implementing recalls when necessary. They issue public alerts, provide guidance on identifying contaminated products, and detail the steps being taken to address the outbreak. They also often coordinate with international counterparts in cases of widespread or cross-border outbreaks.

Healthcare Providers:

Hospitals, clinics, and healthcare professionals play a key role in communicating risks and symptoms to patients. They provide direct guidance to those affected by the outbreak and help disseminate public health information. Their frontline perspective is critical in diagnosing cases and reporting new incidents, which feeds back into the broader public health communication strategy.

Media Outlets:

Traditional media (television, radio, newspapers) and digital media (news websites, social media platforms) are essential for amplifying messages from the company, public health authorities, and regulatory agencies. Journalists and media professionals help ensure that information reaches a broad audience quickly. They also have the responsibility to verify information and avoid spreading misinformation.

Each of these stakeholders must coordinate effectively to ensure consistent and accurate communication. By working together, they can manage the outbreak more effectively, protect public health, and maintain public trust.

How can negative online reviews hurt a restaurant, and how can a restaurant use crisis communications to deal with them?

Negative online reviews can significantly harm a restaurant's reputation and business in several ways:

Loss of Potential Customers: Many people rely on online reviews when choosing where to eat. Negative reviews can deter potential customers, leading to a decrease in foot traffic and sales. Prospective diners may opt for competitors with better reviews.

Damage to Reputation: A string of negative reviews can tarnish a restaurant's reputation. This damage can extend beyond individual complaints, creating a broader perception that the restaurant consistently provides poor service or food quality.

Lower Search Engine Rankings: Online reviews impact search engine algorithms. A predominance of negative reviews can lead to lower search engine rankings, making the restaurant less visible to potential customers searching for dining options online.

Loss of Existing Customers: Regular customers who see negative reviews might reconsider their loyalty to the restaurant. Consistent negative feedback can suggest underlying issues that haven't been addressed, causing existing patrons to take their business elsewhere.

Employee Morale and Recruitment: Negative reviews can affect staff morale and make it difficult to recruit new employees. Potential hires might be discouraged by poor public perception and existing staff might feel demoralized by ongoing criticism.

To effectively manage negative online reviews through crisis communications, a restaurant can employ the following strategies:

Prompt and Professional Responses: Address negative reviews promptly and professionally. Apologize for any shortcomings, express empathy, and thank the reviewer for their feedback. Show that the restaurant takes complaints seriously and is committed to resolving issues.

Provide Solutions and Updates: Where applicable, offer solutions or compensation, such as a discount or a free meal, to dissatisfied customers. Additionally, update reviews with information on how the restaurant has addressed the issues raised, such as changes in staff training, menu updates, or improved service protocols.

Encourage Positive Reviews: Actively encourage satisfied customers to leave positive reviews. This helps balance out negative feedback and can restore a more accurate representation of the restaurant's overall quality. Consider implementing loyalty programs or small incentives to motivate happy customers to share their experiences online.

Transparent Communication: Use crisis communication channels to openly address any widespread issues that might have led to negative reviews, such as a foodborne illness outbreak or a service disruption. Explain the steps being taken to rectify the problem and ensure it doesn't happen again. Transparency helps rebuild trust and shows accountability.

Engage on Social Media: Utilize social media platforms to engage with customers and share positive stories, behind-the-scenes content, and customer testimonials. This proactive approach can help dilute the impact of negative reviews and foster a positive online presence.

Learn and Improve: Treat negative reviews as constructive feedback. Analyze recurring issues highlighted by reviewers and implement changes to improve the restaurant's offerings and operations. Communicate these improvements both internally and externally to demonstrate a commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

By addressing negative reviews promptly and effectively through these crisis communication strategies, a restaurant can mitigate the impact of negative feedback, improve customer relations, and ultimately enhance its reputation and business performance.

"Transparency during a crisis is essential for maintaining or rebuilding trust with customers, employees, and the broader community."

Be forthright in disseminating communication during a food borne illness outbreak

The affected restaurant should be forthright in disseminating crisis and risk communication during a foodborne illness outbreak for several critical reasons:

Protecting Public Health: The foremost priority is to safeguard public health. By being forthright, the restaurant ensures that consumers are promptly informed about the risk, including which foods to avoid and what symptoms to watch for. This can prevent further cases of illness and help those already affected to seek timely medical care, potentially reducing the severity and spread of the outbreak.

Maintaining Trust and Credibility: Transparency during a crisis is essential for maintaining or rebuilding trust with customers, employees, and the broader community. If a restaurant is honest and open about the issue, it demonstrates responsibility and commitment to customer safety. Conversely, attempts to hide or downplay the problem can lead to a significant loss of credibility and trust, potentially causing long-term damage to the restaurant's reputation.

Managing Misinformation and Panic: In the age of social media, misinformation can spread quickly. Being forthright allows the restaurant to control the narrative by providing accurate, reliable information. Clear and honest communication helps to dispel rumors and misinformation, reducing public panic and ensuring that people follow appropriate guidelines to protect themselves.

Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Transparency is often a legal requirement. Regulatory bodies like the FDA or local health departments may mandate reporting and public disclosure of foodborne illness outbreaks. Non-compliance can result in legal penalties, fines, and further reputational damage. Forthright communication demonstrates the restaurant's commitment to regulatory compliance and public safety.

Mitigating Economic Impact: While an outbreak can initially harm a restaurant’s business, forthright communication can mitigate longer-term economic impacts. Transparent communication can shorten the duration of the crisis by enabling quicker resolution and recovery. It also helps in retaining customer loyalty, as customers are more likely to return to a restaurant that they perceive as honest and responsible. Moreover, it minimizes the risk of prolonged negative media coverage and potential boycotts.

Being forthright in disseminating crisis and risk communication during a foodborne illness outbreak is crucial for protecting public health, maintaining trust and credibility, managing misinformation, ensuring legal compliance, and mitigating economic impacts. Transparent and proactive communication is a vital component of effective crisis management and recovery.

How should a food company handle crisis communication during a foodborne illness outbreak?

During a foodborne illness outbreak, a food company must prioritize transparent and proactive crisis communication to maintain trust and protect public health. The first step is to promptly acknowledge the issue. This involves issuing a clear and concise statement as soon as the outbreak is identified, confirming awareness of the problem, and conveying empathy for those affected. It is crucial to assure the public that the company is taking the situation seriously and is committed to resolving it swiftly.

Next, the company should provide detailed information about the situation, including the specific product(s) involved, the symptoms of the illness, and the steps consumers should take if they suspect they have been affected. This information should be disseminated through multiple channels, including press releases, social media, the company website, and direct communication with stakeholders such as retailers and health officials. Transparency is key; withholding information can lead to speculation and further erode public trust.

Simultaneously, the company must collaborate closely with health authorities and regulatory bodies. This partnership ensures that accurate and up-to-date information is shared and that the company complies with all investigation and recall procedures. Regular updates should be provided to the public as the situation evolves, including any new findings and the actions being taken to prevent further incidents. Demonstrating a cooperative and responsible approach can help mitigate negative perceptions.

Furthermore, it is essential for the company to take immediate corrective actions to address the source of the contamination. This may involve recalling affected products, halting production, and conducting a thorough investigation to identify and rectify the root cause. Communicating these actions transparently shows that the company is not only addressing the current outbreak but also taking steps to prevent future occurrences. Highlighting improvements in safety protocols and procedures can help restore confidence in the brand.

Finally, post-crisis communication is vital for rebuilding trust and reputation. Once the outbreak is contained, the company should follow up with a detailed report outlining what was learned from the incident and how similar risks will be mitigated moving forward. Continuous engagement with consumers, stakeholders, and the media ensures that the company is seen as committed to safety and transparency. Offering support to affected individuals, such as healthcare guidance or compensation, can also demonstrate genuine concern and responsibility. By handling the crisis with integrity and openness, the company can recover its reputation and reinforce its commitment to consumer safety.

The 4-11

Effective crisis and risk communication during a foodborne illness outbreak is paramount to safeguarding public health, maintaining consumer trust, and ensuring the long-term viability of the affected business. Transparent and timely dissemination of information helps prevent further illness by guiding the public on necessary precautions and fostering a sense of trust through demonstrated accountability and empathy. By managing the narrative and mitigating misinformation, stakeholders can control the situation more effectively, ensuring coordinated responses from health authorities, regulatory agencies, and the media. Ultimately, the proactive handling of a crisis not only protects consumers but also reinforces the restaurant's commitment to safety and quality, enabling it to recover more robustly from the outbreak and ensure the best chances at recovering a tarnished food establishment.

About the Author

Mark Linderman is the owner of Disaster Initiatives, an online company that provides communication leaders with the tools needed to address their communities and the media throughout a crisis, and teaches the communicator to approach crisis communication from the listener’s perspective. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and nineteen-year veteran of Public Health. He instructs Crisis & Risk Communication within the field of disaster preparedness for seven universities, including Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. Mark is considered a Subject Matter Expert in the field of disaster-based communication and is a widely received public speaker and advocate for disaster preparedness. 

Mark Linderman,

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