When it comes to fresh produce, differentiating your product presents perhaps the greatest challenge.

Recalls serve as the great marketing equalizer

Mike Rozembajgier

Rare is the supermarket shopper who decides to buy strawberries, potatoes or lettuce based on the farmer who grew them or the packer who branded them.

The truth is, consumers seldom take notice of the name on the sticker.

That is, until there is a recall.

Recalls are the single greatest marketing equalizer. Domestic, imported, local or name-brand produce — it no longer matters.

What matters is whether the food is safe, and who is responsible for it.

In the produce industry, when a recall affects a single producer, not only does that single brand take a serious hit, but all other producers in that category risk being tarred with the same brush.

But if innocent produce companies are able to distinguish themselves from dangerous or contaminated food products, they create a strong opportunity to establish brand solidarity and dominance in the midst of industry disarray.

More important, their products remain for sale while the competition is cleared from grocery store shelves and restaurants.

In an age where food safety is a chief concern for consumers, product tracking and labeling have become increasingly critical in bringing produce to market and protecting both the consumer health and the producer’s business.

In fact, the Food Safety Act of 2009 mandates that all produce be traceable, necessitating the need for a standardized system of bar coding for all produce sold in the U.S. Growers must meet a January deadline for compliance with this issue or risk being prevented from selling their goods to major grocers.

Even though produce companies must now cover the costs for implementing a tracking system, eventually they’ll be thankful they did.

By embracing a standardized tracking system for the industry, produce companies can strategically position themselves to either minimize the effects of their own recall, or promote their own brands when others in the industry face recall situations.

A proper tracking system can help ensure that affected products are recognized and removed from the food supply — whether at the distribution, grocery store or consumer level — protecting consumer safety.

Increased recognition could effectively shorten the recall lifecycle and reduce the number of sicknesses and even deaths among consumers, protecting the brand and the growers. Communication during a recall comes down to reaching consumers, but it doesn’t stop there.

Recall communication is one of the most critical exercises at every level of the supply chain.

It is important to understand where products came from and where they have gone from the time they are harvested until they are in consumers’ possession. Knowing this information will help ensure that your communication is effective.

The FDA has made it a priority to develop more effective food recall notifications and communications to consumers.

Thus far, data from the agency have indicated that consumers often have general information about recalled products, but not necessarily the specifics of brands and control numbers.

As the agency continues to show interest in recall communications, its findings may significantly affect the type, means and timeliness of recall notifications to the public.

In order to maintain consumer loyalty, producers should assess all levels of their consumer communications to evaluate what works and what can be improved.

To this end, producers and distributors should take steps to review their recall plans and processes.

If a recall has been conducted in the past, a post-mortem of the recall is a smart way to examine the effectiveness of the notifications to all direct consignees and of the communications designed to reach consumers.

Similarly, evaluate your marketing efforts at the consumer level. What works? What doesn’t?  Look for ways that you may be able to better communicate notices and risk to the public.

Taking these steps when things are relatively quiet will not only improve your day-to-day marketing efforts, it will help protect your brand and your business in the midst of crisis, when time is most precious and your reputation is at risk.

Mike Rozembajgier is director of recalls with ExpertRecall, Indianapolis, a national company that provides strategic and logistical services for manufacturers and retailers in the food, consumer-product and pharmaceutical industries. 

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