Manage problems before, not after alienating customers; what the NHL should learn from business

Some genius at CNN decided the National Hockey League, which resumes play in a few days after a protracted strike, could learn from the 1996 E. coli outbreak in unpasteurized juices produced by Odwalla that killed one and sickened at least 65.

While Odwalla did some creative risk communication, they, like the NHL, utterly failed at risk management by letting the crisis happen.

I’m gong back to Australia to play hockey, not talk about it.

Sometime in late September 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver has a glass of Smoothie juice manufactured by  Odwalla Inc. After her parents noticed bloody diarrhea, Anna was admitted to sorenne.hockey.jan.13Children’s Hospital on Oct. 16.  On 8 November 1996 she died after going into cardiac and respiratory arrest.  Anna had severe kidney problems, related to hemolytic uremic syndrome and her heart had stopped several times in previous days.

The juice Anna — and 65 others who got sick — drank was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, linked to fresh, unpasteurized apple cider used as a base in the juices manufactured by Odwalla.  Because they were unpasteurized, Odwalla’s drinks were shipped in cold storage and had only a two-week shelf life.  Odwalla was founded 16 years ago on the premise that fresh, natural fruit juices nourish the spirit.  And the bank balance: in fiscal 1996, Odwalla sales jumped 65 per cent to $60 million (U.S.).  Company chairman Greg Steltenpohl told reporters that the company did not routinely test for E. coli because it was advised by industry experts that the acid level in the apple juice was sufficient to kill the bug.

Who these industry experts are remains a mystery.  Odwalla insists the experts were the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  The FDA isn’t sure who was warned and when.   In addition to all the academic research and media coverage concerning verotoxigenic E. coli cited above, Odwalla claimed ignorance.

In terms of crisis management — and outbreaks of foodborne illness are increasingly contributing to the case study literature on crisis management — Odwalla responded appropriately.  Company officials responded in a timely and compassionate fashion, initiating a complete recall and co-operating with authorities after a link was first made on Oct. 30 between their juice and illness.  They issued timely and comprehensive press statements, and even opened a web site containing background information on both the company and E. coli O157:H7.  Upon learning of Anna’s death, Steltenpohl issued a statement which said, “On behalf of myself and the people at Odwalla, I want to say how deeply saddened and sorry we are to learn of the loss of this child.  Our hearts go out to the family and our primary concern at this moment is to see that we are doing everything we can to help them.”

For Odwalla, or any food firm to say it had no knowledge that E. coli O157 could survive in an acid environment is unacceptable.  When one of us called this $60-million-a-year-company with the great public relations, to ask why they didn’t know that E. coli O157 was a risk in cider, it took over a day to return the call.   That’s a long time in crisis-management time.  More galling was that the company spokeswoman said she had received my message, but that her phone mysteriously couldn’t call Canada that day.

Great public relations; lousy management.  What this outbreak, along with cyclospora in fresh fruit in the spring of 1996 and dozens of others, demonstrates is that, vigilance, from farm to fork, is a mandatory requirement in a global food system.  Risk assessment, management and communication must be interlinked to accommodate new scientific and public information.  And that includes those funky and natural fruit juices.

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