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.

Food safety criminals: throw them in jail or ship them off to the colonies

"Right now you can sicken and kill your customers, and [companies] have no consequences other than embarrassment in the marketplace."

That’s what I told My Health News Daily. Jail time may help – it’s that embarrassment thing – but, "The biggest thing that can be done is that anyone producing or selling food needs to adopt a culture of food safety that puts not making your customers sick as your first priority. If your customers are dead or dying, it’s not easy to make money.

"It’s not up to government to produce safe food. It’s up to producers to know how to produce safe food," Powell said.

Fifteen years ago this month, an outbreak of E. coli from unpasteurized apple juice sickened 60 to 70 people, killed a 16-month-old girl from Denver and caused 14 children to develop a serious kidney condition that can require lifelong dialysis treatments.

The federal case brought against juice maker Odwalla resulted in the first criminal conviction for foodborne illness, although no one in the company served time in jail. The company was fined $1.5 million for distributing contaminated juice — the largest fine ever issued in the United States for food poisoning.

James Dickson, a food safety expert and professor at Iowa State University said, "Food isn’t sterile. The only way you would ever get away from foodborne disease outbreaks is if you refused to allow the sale of any raw product in the marketplace.”

Natural does not mean safe: Kansas locals still pushing unpasteurized cider

Oh, unpasteurized apple cider, when will you stop providing food safety moments?

It was 13 years ago last night that U.S. health investigators figured out that unpasteurized juice with apple cider as a base was making people sick with E. coli O157:H7 in the Pacific Northwest region.

On Friday, Amy made a stop at a local plant and produce shop to pick up a pumpkin.

Amy writes:

The woman behind the counter quipped, “It looks like you already have a little pumpkin” motioning towards Sorenne who was hanging off my hip.

As I was paying the woman asked me, “Did you get a chance to have a swig of our apple cider?”

There was a tray with about 10 dixie cups full of cider on the counter. I had looked at them with interest while waiting to pay. I used to love apple cider but Doug has taught me to be skeptical. I asked without thinking, “Is the juice pasteurized?”

The woman looked at me as if to say, of course not, but she said, “No, but there is a preservative in it,” sort of apologetically for the preservative not being natural.

“No thanks then, and especially not for my daughter.” “Oh no!” she replied. “I didn’t mean for her but for you.” I left it at that. I was in a hurry, the woman was helping me to the car with the pumpkin, and maybe she just didn’t know better.

In my mind I was screaming, “Lady, I don’t want to die from your juice either.” I called Doug to thank him for teaching me about food safety. Four years ago I would have unthinkingly and gladly drank the cider. And if I had a child, I would have also offered it to her, not knowing about E. coli or even questioning whether someone in a store would serve me unsafe food.

From the cider files:

In October, 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider –and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believe that some of the apples used to make the cider may have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

In the fall of 1998, I accompanied one of my four daughters on a kindergarten trip to the farm. After petting the animals and touring the crops –I questioned the fresh manure on the strawberries –we were assured that all the food produced was natural. We then returned for unpasteurized apple cider. The host served the cider in a coffee urn, heated, so my concern about it being unpasteurized was abated. I asked: "Did you serve the cider heated because you heard about other outbreaks and were concerned about liability?" She responded, "No. The stuff starts to smell when it’s a few weeks old and heating removes the smell."

Here’s the abstract from a paper Amber Luedtke and I published back in 2002:

A review of North American apple cider outbreaks caused by E. coli O157:H7 demonstrated that in the U.S., government officials, cider producers, interest groups and the public were actively involved in reforming and reducing the risk associated with unpasteurized apple cider. In Canada, media coverage was limited and government agencies inadequately managed and communicated relevant updates or new documents to the industry and the public.

Therefore, a survey was conducted with fifteen apple cider producers in Ontario, Canada, to gain a better understanding of production practices and information sources. Small, seasonal operations in Ontario produce approximately 20,000 litres of cider per year. Improper processing procedures were employed by some operators, including the use of unwashed apples and not using sanitizers or labeling products accurately.

Most did not pasteurize or have additional safety measures. Larger cider producers ran year-long, with some producing in excess of 500,000 litres of cider. Most sold to large retail stores and have implemented safety measures such as HACCP plans, cider testing and pasteurization. All producers surveyed received government information on an irregular basis, and the motivation to ensure safe, high-quality apple cider was influenced by financial stability along with consumer and market demand, rather than by government enforcement.
 

Great communications, lousy management: Is Maple Leaf the new Odwalla?

Last week I dusted off some old slides to talk with an industry group about best practices in food safety. I got bored of hearing myself say the same thing about 10 years ago, but sometimes, it’s best to stick to basics.

Risk analysis is composed of risk assessment, management and communication. Over the years I’ve studied dozens of outbreaks of foodborne illness and concluded that a producer, or processor, or retailer needs to be excellent at all three—assessment, management and communication – and if they fail at just one, they will suffer the economic and associated hardships.

There is no doubt that Michael McCain and Maple Leaf Foods has practiced excellent risk communication since being fingered as the source of a listeria outbreak in Canada that killed at least 20 and sickened 60. I’ve said so from the beginning. I’ve also said that

it is impossible to judge whether Maple Leaf was practicing good risk management and assessment because no one will come clean on who knew what when as the outbreak was developing.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadians from gushing in a blindly patriotic way about how McCain set the ‘gold standard’ for reputational and financial management.

Maybe, but communications alone is never enough, just like science alone is never enough. And precisely because no one – government or industry – has come clean on who knew what when, it’s not surprising to hear

the Canadian federal government has delayed for months the release of notes on conference calls

held at the height of last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak — a lag some experts say breaks Ottawa’s own information laws.

At issue is an Access to Information request by The Canadian Press to the Privy Council Office for “all transcripts and minutes” of the crucial exchanges last August and September.

The Odwalla 1996 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized juice was also textbook risk communication, but the company was eventually revealed to have cut corners and ignored warning signs. Will Maple Leaf undergo similar scrutiny?

Below is an except from my 1997 book, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, about the Odwalla outbreak.

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 Children’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 are unpasteurized, Odwalla’s drinks are shipped in cold storage and have 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 has 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 VTEC cited above — even all of the stories involving VTEC surviving in acidic environments — Odwalla claims 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.