RECALL REACTION

Food safety continues to be at the top of consumers minds, so situations concerning contaminated product are more and more likely to occur. That being the case, it's increasingly important for any food retailer to have a response plan in place -- ahead of the inevitable emergency -- to reduce the risk that the situation will spin out of control. Two retailers have been involved in emergency recall

Food safety continues to be at the top of consumers minds, so situations concerning contaminated product are more and more likely to occur. That being the case, it's increasingly important for any food retailer to have a response plan in place -- ahead of the inevitable emergency -- to reduce the risk that the situation will spin out of control. Two retailers have been involved in emergency recall situations in recent weeks alone, as has been reported in SN: One involved Shaw's Supermarkets in New England and another at Costco Cos., the nationwide membership operator. There's a news article on Page 47 of this week's SN about these retailers' response to their challenge.

Perhaps the first question to consider when planning for a recall emergency has to do with the news media. When news that a recall has been instituted breaks, great numbers of reporters will need someone to describe what's going on. If the recall is tied to branded product and affects several retailers, chances are the vendor that will have to field the problem. But if the situation is tied to a single retail chain -- or, worse yet, that chain's private label -- it's the retailer that will have to deal with the tsunami of telephone calls and interview requests that will result.

The best way to deal with channeling information to the news media is to have an team identified, the members of which can assemble on a moment's notice to start taking media calls. What should they say? They should indicate that the retailer is aware of the gravity of the situation, that a plan which will result in the removal of contaminated product from stores is in place and that recall procedures have been instituted to inspire return of contaminated product which has already been purchased (assuming all that's true).

And, should reporters appear in person, it may be wise to invite them and their cameras into a store to take a look at how recalled product has been removed and perhaps to assess general sanitation procedures. Remember, media representatives who are turned away from the headquarters store, or a nearby store, may simply go to another store location and do the same in a totally uncontrolled manner.

It's also possible to simply not cooperate with the news media at all, but that course will exact a high penalty. The biggest penalty attaches to the use of "no comment," a phrase that's anathema. That's because nearly every reporter or editor will take that statement to mean the retailer is admitting guilt and has something to hide. The most charitable interpretation possible is that the retailer doesn't know what's going on. None of these possibilities are attractive, especially since every reader will draw similar conclusions.

A similar situation, but a far more dangerous one, pertains to broadcast media: The guerrilla interview of the type that occurs when a television camera crew arrives at a company headquarters or store location unannounced. Efforts should be made to steer the crew to those empowered to speak on behalf of the chain. The worst reaction is to freeze up and blurt out "no comment," or push the camera away.

The key to understanding the function of the news media, and results it will produce, is to realize that its appetite is voracious and publicity is inevitable. The only question is whether the subject retailer chooses to participate in the process or not. Sometimes it may seem like a good idea duck the process, and avoid feeding the media in any way at all. But that doesn't mean publicity will go away. It means the story of the subject retailer will be told by governmental agencies, competitors, consultants and a host of other outsiders.