Corporate Risk, Issues & Crisis

August 11, 2017

Egg crisis highlights need for industry collaboration

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Written by Jen Horsman, Consultant, Business Resilience

The Food Standards Agency confirmed yesterday that about 700,000 eggs contaminated with insecticide have been imported into the UK, and today’s front pages demonstrate the real challenges that organisations face when communicating during a crisis.

One of the initial questions often asked in a crisis is who’s to blame? But with no one culprit identified and no designated figure-head, the media (and Ian Jones, Chairman of the British Lion Egg Producers) has decided to point a finger at UK supermarkets. And in a crisis, media is king.

Front pages that claim supermarkets ‘SCRAMBLE TO CLEAR POISON EGGS OFF SHELVES’ incite fear in the public, which in turn provokes our ‘blame culture’ and puts organisations under even more pressure to respond in a situation where not all information is known (a common element to deal with in crisis communications).

UK supermarkets are therefore feeling the brunt of this crisis, suffering harm to a reputation that still isn’t fully recovered from their 2013 horsemeat hangover. Having previously stated they’ll only put British eggs on the shelves, supermarkets are being accused of ‘double standards’, ‘cheap imports’ and ‘foreign eggs’, as they recall prepared foods containing contaminated imported eggs.

Additionally, the difficulty in identifying who is ultimately accountable for communicating in this crisis is creating a void of information, leading to growing speculation. In any crisis, being transparent and engaging with stakeholders enables you to have more control over the situation.

Following orders to UK supermarkets to recall some products containing egg, the Food Standards Agency issued a couple of public statements and (perhaps reluctantly) emerged as a default spokesperson.

While the FSA has followed best-practice in providing frequent updates as new information has become available, its inability to give conclusive figures on the scope of the problem has been negatively reported. The public’s expectation of the food regulator is to be on the front foot when it comes to knowing vital information about the food they consume. With the reported numbers of contaminated eggs imported into the UK apparently still increasing, trust in the regulator is wavering.

We expect that hindsight will reveal multiple failings in the supply chain leading to this crisis (echoing the horsemeat scandal), but the public don’t see that. They don’t care about the messy politics of how different food regulators across Europe interact or want to understand the ins and outs of retailer standards. They just want to trust that the food they are consuming is safe to eat.

This is an excellent opportunity – if one was needed – for all food industry stakeholders to refocus efforts on establishing effective internal collaboration. This includes formal and informal collaboration between regulators, industry bodies, the scientific community, customers, consumers and colleagues.

It is only with an open two-way flow of information that the industry can effectively pre-empt a crisis such as this. Plus, should a crisis occur, prior collaboration will enable a unified and robust response during times of intense pressure and public scrutiny.

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