Contaminated frozen berries event highlights the need for crisis plan

A recent outbreak of hepatitis A in several countries caused by frozen berries has highlighted the need for a comprehensive crisis plan that helps reducing the financial and reputational impact of such events.

Frozen strawberries and other frozen berry blends sold (opens a new window) at many large supermarkets in the US have been linked to hepatitis A, a very contagious viral liver infection. This has triggered a product recall announcement (opens a new window) on June 12. It follows a similar recall of frozen strawberries in the US in April for the same reason. Back in 2022, fresh organic  strawberries were identified as the source of a multistate outbreak (opens a new window) of hepatitis A (opens a new window).

The issue is not confined to the US. End of 2022 an outbreak of hepatitis A in New Zealand was linked (opens a new window) to imported frozen berries. More recently, the Taiwanese Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found (opens a new window) the hepatitis A virus in bags of frozen berries imported from Chile.

The hepatitis A virus remains viable in the environment for long periods (opens a new window). Once contaminated, freezing a food product effectively “preserves” the virus. Cooking berries in excess of 85°C for at least one minute can kill the virus but washing the berries will not.

The most common sources of contamination are:

  • Food being grown in contaminated water

  • Produce being picked or packed by a person infected with hepatitis A

  • Produce being washed in contaminated water

Mitigating the risk

Pre-event preparation and planning can have a big impact on the size of a recall and the extent of financial and reputational damage. Frequent product testing is critical for identifying potential issues early and therefore limiting the size of a recall. Monitoring a wide range of indicators to establish if something might have gone wrong can speed up discovery. This can include monitoring social media for customer comments, tracking help lines and other forms of feedback for potential complaints. Relationship management that involves regular communication with customers and stakeholders, like regulators, is likely to help smooth the process of a recall event.

But because product recall events such as the one described above may not be completely preventable, it is essential that businesses create a crisis management plan that is reviewed and updated on a regular basis.

Reducing the impact

The speed with which a company identifies and acts upon a potential issue can have a significant effect on the size of a recall and its financial impact. The first few hours are particularly important when consumer safety and a company’s reputation are at stake. While time is crucial when a product’s safety is questioned, ill-judged decisions can add cost and further damage a business’ reputation.

A well-managed crisis management plan should include:

  • Defined roles and responsibilities

  • Carrying out tracing

  • Carrying out recall simulations to familiarise staff with the plan

  • Simulations should include social and traditional media, customers, and other stakeholders

  • Working through recall scenarios to prepare the right people and put them in a position to make more informed decisions

  • Acting on areas of improvement revealed by the recall simulation

  • Ensuring that discovery of a potential issue immediately triggers the recall plan

  • Collaborating with consultants for further investigations

  • Ensuring clear, timely and honest announcements by the company

  • Engaging in multi-channel communication to ensure maximum number of customers are reached

  • Resolution following the discovery of the cause of the issue

  • Restoring trust in the brand with customers and business partners

Crisis management services are usually included with product recall insurance, which is designed to help manage the considerable costs of a recall and limit reputational damage. Unsurprisingly, insurance take-up in the food and beverage sector is particularly high. This reflects the substantial levels of regulation and the size of companies relative to the exposures. Insurance policies can also include a preventative risk management element with a percentage of the premium dedicated to mitigation services, including building continuity/crisis management plans.

For further information, please visit our Product Recall and Reputational Risk page (opens a new window), or contact:

Freddie Schlesinger − Vice President Product Recall & Reputational Risk

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