Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel
Food Safety Attorney

Brand Protection Requires More Than Wishful Thinking

By Shawn K. Stevens
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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

When it comes to the production of food, it is the things industry can’t see which industry fears most.

We have learned in recent years that, if you work in the food industry, it’s not a matter of “if” your products will be associated with a recall, it’s really a matter of “when.”

Indeed, lurking somewhere in the darkest corner of a hot box, in the silent throes of a sales cooler, or in a case-ready package being staged for delivery, there are a few colonies of pathogenic bacteria waiting patiently for their chance to wreak havoc in our business and lives.

For more than a decade, our firm has worked closely helping the meat industry with crisis management, regulatory response and complex litigation following large-scale outbreaks and recalls. The unfortunate reality from a business perspective is that, in a disturbing number of instances, when outbreaks and recalls occur, the companies that are involved cease to exist.

Watching innumerable outbreaks unfold over the years, our firm has gained a deep understanding about the science of food safety, the epidemiology of foodborne illness outbreaks and the legal consequences of food product recalls.

We have also gained far-reaching experience analyzing why recalls occur in the first instance, and how they, in many instances, could have been avoided.

While all companies want their customers to believe that their products are as safe as possible, and try to communicate this fundamental message through their brand, in today’s world success requires more than just a good advertising campaign. In order so sell food safely, a company needs to demonstrate it can process a safe product. In order to process a safe product, the company needs to invest in making it a reality.

Food safety, unfortunately, doesn’t just “happen” by itself.

In addition to facilitating their own third party audits, and also ensuring they are maintaining regulatory compliance, companies should also be auditing their operations from a brand protection standpoint. When I conduct Brand Protection Audits on behalf of my clients, I can usually accomplish what I need in just a single day. I like to interview employees, learn about the company’s food safety culture, and review food safety training and operational materials. I will also assess a company’s written food safety plans, identify hidden gaps that create additional exposure, and suggest improvements that will avoid criticism by lawyers or media in the event of an outbreak or recall. Moreover, many companies are surprised to find out that their policies are not actually being executed as written.

In addition, companies can lessen their exposure (and, thus better protect their brand) in other ways as well. Working together, we can easily develop stronger and more effective supplier specifications and indemnity agreements that provide added protection, as well as ensuring that existing insurance coverage is sufficient to cover potential liabilities. We also work closely with companies to develop crisis plans and conduct mock recall training, in as close to a real-world scenario as possible, to improve their ability to trace, contain and effectively manage potential problems.

Finally, we help our clients respond to FDA Warning Letters (and 483s), as well as FSIS issued NRs (so as to avoid criticisms months or years later from a judge or jury), and also prepare for and respond to both routine and for cause Food Safety Assessments. Many companies simply do not realize that what they say today can (and always will) be used against them tomorrow.

With that said, merely creating the “image” that you care about food safety is no longer enough. History has taught us that by taking a few additional proactive steps right now, such as auditing the true depth and survivability of your brand (i.e., the Brand Protection Audit), companies can significantly and strengthen the trust in, and longevity of, their most important assets – their image and their brand.

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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

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