CHICAGO -- Faced with a multibrand, nationwide product recall, and the possibility of a class-action lawsuit over listeria-tainted hot dogs and deli meats, Sara Lee Corp. here is using critical communications skills to manage the crisis.
"If you're in the business of selling food products, it's incumbant upon you to be prepared for whatever situations might arise, whether those are recalls or any other thing that might involve the safety of your products," said Theresa Herlevsen, Sara Lee spokeswoman. While she declined to be more specific, Herlevsen said the plan emphasizes both internal and external communications skills, as well as providing a blueprint for the immediate start-up of a communications center to disseminate information and answer consumer questions.
Indeed, many segments of the entire food industry are watching the company as it conducts a sweeping damage-control operation, since it is the first time in several years that deaths have been attributable to food products. Experts in the field of crisis management say the deaths are a development which significantly raises the stakes.
"Every company, even if it has a crisis plan in place, must recognize that the standards to which it is being held are continually raising, and it must react in an appropriate and timely manner," said Brian Delaney, director of the crisis communications center at Clarke & Company, Boston. "This case is raising [those] standards."
At Sara Lee, the primary goal is to dispense as much information as possible, as soon as it becomes available. Some of the answers have come as the production lines where the products were manufactured are halted, disassembled and examined for clues.
"We continue to work very closely with the USDA in our facility," said Herlevsen. "We're [also] working with some external consultants and specialists to review all of the processes that we have."
To date, at least 50 people in 11 states have fallen ill with the Listeria bacteria, and eight deaths have been reported, according to the most recent federal statistics.
The case in question took a turn for the worse when federal investigators isolated a strain of Listeriosis from both a package of unopened and opened hot dogs manufactured at the company's Bil Mar Foods plant in Zeeland, Mich. Additionally, according to a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, a separate strain was discovered in deli meats produced at the same plant.
All the products were part of the voluntary recall issued by the company on December 22, after a meeting with representatives from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At that time, the source of the outbreak had yet to be determined, though the investigation was focusing on the plant.
"It was difficult for us to estimate how much [unconsumed] product was out there because you don't know how much product people freeze or hold in their home," said Herlevsen, adding that the company shut down its suspect production lines prior to the recall. Up-to-date numbers reflecting the amount of products turned in or destroyed are likewise not available.
Though the recall included only two Establishment Numbers -- P261 and 6911 -- it comprised familiar regional and national brand names: Ball Park, Bil Mar, Bryan Bunsize and Bryan 3-pound. Club Pack hot dogs; as well Grillmaster, Hygrade, Mr. Turkey, Sara Lee Deli Meat and Sara Lee Home Roast brands.
Though the initial news of the outbreak and the ensuing recall was heavily publicized through traditional consumer media channels, federal authorities expressed concern that the importance of the recall was fading in the minds of consumers, due to the nature of both the products and the infecting bacteria.
"This illness has an incubation period of three to four weeks. And these products, if kept in the freezer, really do have a long shelf life," said Tom Skinner, CDC spokesman. "There may still be contaminated product out there."
To that end, Sara Lee has continued to maintain a special 800 number to address any consumer questions concerning the recalled products and the outbreak in general.
"We continue to advise consumers to look at their product and look for those establishment numbers, and to discard the [affected packages] or return them to their grocers for a full refund," said Herlevsen. "The number is manned by individuals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The first message you hear reinforces [the advisement] as well."
Against this backdrop, Sara Lee is gearing up on the legal front for what could be a costly class-action lawsuit filed in Chicago as federal investigators closed in on the sourcing the outbreak. The suit, filed by the firm of Kenneth B. Moll & Associates Ltd. In a statement, the firm said it was seeking class-action status on behalf of all persons who consumed hot dogs and other meat products manufactured by Sara Lee linked to the outbreak.
If granted, a ruling in the favors of the plaintiffs could result in a multimillion-dollar award. At the same time, it is estimated that the recall and ancillary actions could cost the company upwards of $70 million.
"I think that the record will show that Bil Mar Foods acted swiftly and responsibly, just as soon as the CDC informed us of the possibility that our products could be linked to specific illnesses," said Herlevsen, "and that we took the broadest action we could that was in the best interest of our consumers."
That record has not kept others in the legal community from fanning the flames of controversy by issuing press releases or statements in an attempt to snare publicity. In one well-documented instance, William Marler, an attorney in Seattle, issued his own statement alleging that Bil Mar Foods' Zeeland plant "has had problems," noting it was closed down a year ago by the USDA for a contamination problem inside the facility, and that products manufactured there have been the subject of five separate recalls since 1994.
Officials for Sara Lee, meanwhile, say they will continue their two-pronged initiative of talking directly with consumers via the 800 phone line, and working to reassure them by making changes to the production facility and the procedures used to manufacture product.
"We're looking at a number of things," said Herlevsen. "Processed meats are already cooked, and cooking destroys Listeria and other harmful bacteria. The only potential for contamination is after it's been cooked and processed, and before it's actually packaged. And so, those are the types of processes and technologies that we are talking with leading universities and food processing experts in the private sector about, and seeing what can be developed and applied that can enhance the safety of [our] products."