Opinion: ground rules for establishing produce safety

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Opinion: ground rules for establishing produce safety

By Visión y Servicios president Eric Viramontes

Eric-Viramontes-292x300The other day my good friend William Watson from the National Mango Board invited me to participate in a panel discussion on "When a Crisis Hits Home." The framework of this discussion was safety, taking place in McAllen, Texas at the same time as the America Trades Produce Conference.

I should point out that over the last few months, I have been swamped in tomato negotiations where we defended our industry before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But that's a topic for another time.

Judging from the title, I thought I would have to talk about domestic conflicts and explain how to manage scolding from my wife when I leave the drawers open or dirty clothes in the bathroom. I thought Will had been very wise in picking me to speak in a panel about poor, victimized married men living under the rule of our wives, but that was not the case.

Fortunately, my fellow panel members spoke before I did and I realized we were speaking about the crises that follow a contagious outbreak from food. In that moment, I realized the audience might like to hear my opinion on the topic.

Forgive me for beginning my writing with a little humor to discuss a very serious topic. Others before me have touched on immensely inspiring topics on this type of issue, which can cost lives, kill industries and bury companies. There is nothing funny about hearing such stories.

The truth is that our industry has invested big capital to become highly competitive, incorporating management, safety and security systems, implementing industry and government requirements, and effectively mitigating risks. Contamination can happen, however and - knock on wood - these crises can happen at any time.

I wanted to approach the topic from the point of view of communication, which is where I have experience. I proposed four rules to get prepared for a potential crisis of this kind.

Rule 1

As the saying goes, hope for the best, prepare for the worst. In our industry this means: "Be at your best to prepare for the worst.”

You must also work at being competitive regarding security and safety measures to optimize risk management. Never let your guard down. This industry is dynamic. You must be alert and up to date to incorporate the best management systems, including back up documentation.

This is not just a chore; your children eat what you produce. You must also be prepared to represent everything you do in order to protect the safety of people that consume your exports.

Rule 2

Be part of a solid organization that works with employees on developing security, safety and competitiveness. Think of your organization like a neighborhood association. You may keep your house clean, in good conditions, the garden well kept but, who keeps your neighbors honest? Well, that would be the neighborhood association.

The organization that takes on the above rule must have a food safety program as its backbone with the goal of having all of its associates on board. Those who do not comply will be kept out of the neighborhood association.

Rule 3

Keep communication lines open. They should always be kept close and healthy with all industry actors, even in peacetimes. I refer to government institutions, relevant authorities, sister organizations, industry actors and media channels.  The more personal these dialogue channels, the better.

There is always a lot of work that can be done with media. They always need to be informed of what is happening and if you help them do their job, the gratitude may pay off when you need it the most - like in a time of crisis when you need to give information efficiently. The same goes for your government  or authorities at the destination of origin. Good and established cooperation works better than only seeking them out when there are problems.

Regarding the industry, it should be your personal interest to keep your fellow agricultural professionals informed and well trained. When there's a crisis, whether you're responsible or not, it affects the entire industry, sector or country.

Rule 4

You must have a plan ready for crisis management, including a contingency fund or budget, and a trained and active spokesperson that the media recognizes and trusts. Overall, you must have a plan established with your employees on how to act.

The best thing I can recommend is hiring an agency that specializes in the area. They can help train, prepare and make an efficient budget to carry out an effective and timely campaign.

In a crisis, time lost is fatal. If you do not inform, clarify or express actions in a correct and rapid manner, you can lose exponential amounts of money, consumer confidence and the ability to recover from the blow.

There are consumers who claim in surveys that they will never again consume a product that was the center of a crisis. Two out of three consumers stop using a product following an outbreak alert, whether it can be confirmed or not. Speculation is devastating. Misinformation is your worst enemy.

But hey, with these rules, it wasn't necessary to put my wife under the spotlight and I was able to convey an issue that should be on the minds of all of us in the produce sector.

Are you ready for the worst?

Follow Eric Viramontes on Twitter at @ervs_viramontes.


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