Grocers Need to Get Proactive when Responding to Food Poisoning News

There’s a popular meme going around that asks the rhetorical question, “Why is it that every time I go on a diet, the romaine gets recalled?” The reason this joke lands is because the audience is familiar enough with contaminated produce being recalled that they see the humor immediately.

Immediately. That’s a key aspect to this. People don’t really have to think about the joke, because, chances are, they’ve heard about contaminated produce or gotten a “warning” to avoid lettuce or other salad staples due to food poisoning. They tend to go something like this warning, published in the Associated Press just last week:

“U.S. health officials on Friday told people to avoid romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California, because of another food poisoning outbreak… Officials warned not to eat the leafy green… The warning applies to all types of romaine from the Salinas region…”

More details were forthcoming, but all most consumers will connect with is “don’t eat these leafy greens!”

From a consumer PR perspective, when bad news about your products becomes both universal and frequent enough for an easy joke to land pretty much anywhere, this becomes cause for some concern. It means the consumer public has become casually wary of your products, and may think twice about buying them at all, even when there’s not a warning out. They may even do some research as to which brands and which stores tend to be the most affected by poisoning incidents.

And that’s where good, proactive consumer PR comes in. When consumers do that research, what will they read? What will they find when they search for things like “brands with listeria” or “e coli lettuce brands” or “romaine food poisoning stores.”

Landing on those search response lists could be a serious negative… or a potential positive. Consider this: What would happen if a customer searched one of those terms, or something similar, and came across a few articles about how a brand or a store is preventing food poisoning? Instead of being generally worried about all brands, suddenly they’re on the way to being convinced that specific brand offers nothing to worry about.

That kind of messaging is much better for these brands than the following quote by Laura Gieraltowski, lead investigator of the Salinas food poisoning outbreak: “We’re concerned this romaine could be in other products…”

That’s the kind of message that probably won’t cause a panic, but it will put people off leafy greens for a week or two. And how much will those individual decisions by fearful or justifiably worried shoppers cost produce retailers? Tough to say, but it’s a significant amount, especially leading into the Thanksgiving holiday. Now, again, imagine if millions of families are planning to buy vegetables, and they Google “food poisoning romaine” and learn all about how a company or brand is battling against this possibility in the produce they bring to market?

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