The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a press release on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, announcing that companies producing raw ground chicken and turkey and similar products will be required to reassess their sanitation procedures and pathogen control plans over the next few months. Specifically, over the next 90 days, producers of raw ground chicken and turkey must conduct a thorough examination of its current Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) to confirm its ability to identify hazards and better prevent foodborne illness. After the 90 day period, FSIS inspection program personnel will begin verifying that establishments that manufacture raw ground turkey or chicken products have indeed reassessed their HACCP plans.
FSIS will be documenting whether establishments made any changes to their HACCP plans in response to the required reassessment and will later evaluate those changes. Later, the agency intends to publish guidance materials for the industry on best practices to reduce Salmonella in ground and comminuted (further processed by mechanical separation or deboning and chopped, flaked, minced or broken down) poultry.
In making this announcement, officials at FSIS are hoping to lower the prevalence of Salmonella contamination within these types of products. This attention to the ground poultry product industry with a focus on Salmonella comes as a response to recent outbreaks that have sickened hundreds across the country in the past few years. Just in the last two years there have been two major Salmonella outbreaks associated with ground poultry products that affected consumers nationwide.
In conducting these reassessments, FSIS is advising companies to look at, among other things, the following:
[E]stablishments should evaluate the adequacy of their sanitation procedures for processing equipment, including grinders, blenders, pipes, and other components and surfaces in contact with the product. Thus, Sanitation SOPs, other prerequisite programs, or HACCP plans should address procedures that ensure that all slaughter and further processing equipment, employee hands, tools, and clothing, and food contact surfaces are maintained in a sanitary manner to minimize the potential for cross contamination within and among lots of production. In addition, FSIS expects establishments to ensure that slaughter and dressing procedures are designed to prevent contamination to the maximum extent possible. Such procedures should, at a minimum, be designed to limit the exterior contamination of birds before exsanguination, as well as minimize digestive tract content spillage during dressing process.
Other FSIS recommendations include validating cooking instructions, examining lotting practices that minimize contact between lots, and requiring suppliers to show that they have used a Salmonella intervention step.
In FSIS’s notice, the agency also announced that it will be expanding the Salmonella verification sampling program to include other raw comminuted poultry products, in addition to ground product; it will be increasing the sample size for laboratory analysis from 25 grams to 325 grams to provide consistency as the Agency moves toward analyzing samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter; and it will be conducting sampling to determine the prevalence of Salmonella in raw comminuted poultry products.
Although these new procedures are intended for producers of ground or comminuted chicken and turkey products, FSIS is recommending that manufacturers of comminuted products derived from cattle, hogs, and sheep or comminuted poultry products derived from poultry other than chicken or turkeys also consider assessing whether their food safety systems present food safety vulnerabilities.
Marler Clark clients and the owners of the restaurant that sold MarlerClark's clients food they claim was contaminated with E.coli O111 joined forces against the restaurant's insurer. In the end, the peronsal injury plaintiffs and the restaurant insured convinced the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma on a Rule 56 summary judgment motion that a single E.coli outbreak constituted at least two separate "occurrences" under a commercial general liability insurance policy ("CGL") issued to the restaurant. The result was another $1 million in coverage available to pay claims. A copy of the court's opinion can be linked here.
The primary policy at issue limited the amount of insurance available to $1 million per occurrence ($2 million products-completed operations aggregrate). According to the court, the policy defined an "occurrence" as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” According to court's summary of the state health department's findings, the outbreak at issue included 341 persons, 60 confirmed, and 94 probable. The "point source outbreak" was from the Country Cottage restaurant. Though 21 persons did not dine at the restaurant, they were believed to be exposed at a church tea catered by the restaurant.
The court concluded that under Oklahoma law there are "two distinct places of injury and thus, two separate occurrences." The court explained that:
Looking for “the same temporal and spatial parameters” of an occurrence, the Court finds that the undisputed facts at least establish two separate occurrences of E. coli-induced illness covered under the policies: that resulting from the negligent contamination of food prepared and served at the Country Cottage restaurant and that resulting from the negligent contamination of food prepared and served at the Church Tea. Regardless of any temporal overlap between these two occurrences, the geographical distinction between the physical location of Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, Oklahoma, and that of the Free Will Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma where the Church Tea took place is appreciable and, appreciatively, concrete.
For MarlerClark clients and the injured plaintiffs, the end result is another $1 million available to settle their claims. But is this a good result for the restaurant owners? The answer is maybe. Insureds should understand that the result may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, another $1 million in indemnity is available to protect the owners' personal assets. On the other hand, if the insured had a large deductible or self-insured retention ("SIR"), two occurrences could mean two deductibles or two SIRs that need to be paid by the insured.
So why would an insured ever have a high deductible or SIR? The answer is that many food manufacturers and retailers maintain a high deductible or SIR in order to control the defense and settlement of the case and not hand over control to the insurer at the outset. Often, the insured's objective is to resolve the case in a way that best protects the client’s business and brand going forward. A conflict with the insurer arises because the insurer's objective is to resolve the case for the fewest dollars possible (combined payment of defense costs plus indemnity paid to the allegedly injured consumer).
Jim Prevor has an intriguing story in one of his latest Perishable Pundits, updated here and here, that frankly has me wondering. According to Jim, Freshway Foods discovered E.Coil 0145 in some romaine and, using tracking numbers, was able to trace it to a specific lot supplied by a grower in Yuma, Arizona. It then issued a recall limited to that specific lot.
But the FDA decided to be more cautious and to advise Freshways to recall all the romaine from Yuma, not just the identified lot. And the buyers of the product decided to pull anything they had on their shelves from Freshways, whether it was from Arizona, and whether, apparently, it was romaine or not.
This raises a number of questions and I am not going to purport to answer them. Rather, I'd really like to solicit comments from our very knowledgeable and resourceful readership. This is the age of Web 2.0 and beyond. We'd love to hear from you.
- Is the implication of Jim's article right, that spending money on good tracing systems may be futile because consumers and regulators will never trust the system?
- What kind of public education might work to improve the acceptance of traceability?
- As a legal matter, it's unlikely that the buyer of the non-recalled products has any recourse against the seller; in the real world, however, is the seller likely to make good in order to assure future sales?
- Ken recently wrote about a similar insurance issue; is there any kind of insurance for something taken off the shelves because of an abundance of caution when the supplier says only to recall specific items?
- In his updates, Jim suggests that the real issue is that perhaps we are providing more traceability than the market demands and others suggest that the issue is that upon discovery of an outbreak, the FDA doesn't either adequately communicate the perceived cause of the outbreak or ever issue an "all clear" after it is over. Is either step either (a) practical when things are moving in real time, or (b) really the FDA's responsiblity or even power under current laws and regulations?
I'll be moderating and speaking on a panel at the upcoming ACI's Advanced Summit on Food Safety Regulatory Compliance in Chicago, June 28-29. Scott Rickman from Del Monte, public relations professionals and I will be presenting on "Effectively Responding to Negative Media Coverage: How to Avoid the Backlash" (If you plan to attend, register soon and contact me for a conference discount).
In my practice, I abide by two principles when involved with a case that has potential for negative media coverage:
1. Preservation of the Brand May Trump the Litigation: Even the most serious food-borne illness or consumer fraud claims may not be as significant as preservation of the client's brand. And what may seem like a smart litigation strategy may not be in the best interest of the brand.
For example, ownership of a crisis may be the best way out for a company faced with a widespread food-borne illness outbreak. The 2008 Maple Leaf foods outbreak is a prime example. Maple Leaf foods is one of the largest food companies in Canada and was faced with a deadly nationwide listeria outbreak linked to deli meat processed at one of its plants. Its CEO, Michael McCain, famously took immediate ownership of the crisis, which lead to restoration of both the brand's name and its stock value. Mr. McCain was quoted post mortem as saying:
“Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants . . . . It’s not about money or legal liability, this is about being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”
In other cases, a strategy that "sacrifices" a single product line or a single restaurant for the good of the chain or other product lines may be the right strategy.
Though right for the client, either strategy might be uncomfortable for the litigation team as it constitutes something close to an admission of liability. As one communications expert has said:
“[L]awyers need to understand that legal liability isn’t the only factor to consider in a crisis. But that’s not an easy pill for many lawyers to swallow. They believe future litigation is prejudiced if a CEO makes an apology . . . .”
Which leads me to my second principle:
2. Call the Communications/Public Relations Experts: Lawyers are multi-talented. However, lawyers are not experts in public relations. As illustrated above, the right strategy for a branded food business may prioritize a public relations strategy. The only way to formulate the best strategy for the client is to involve and listen to the entire crisis response team, including the communications/public relations experts.
American Conference Institute (ACI) recently held its latest conference on food-borne illness litigation. The conference has been a fairly intimate gathering of the nation’s lawyers, insurers and experts involved with food-borne illness litigation.
This year, I had the privilege of moderating an in-house counsel “think tank.” The panel was composed of lawyers from a nice cross-section of food businesses: Yum Brands, Hormel, Fresh Express and SUPERVALU (though for each, food-borne illness litigation is a rare event) A slide-deck from the panel can be found here.
Also among the presenters at this year’s conference were Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Dr. Arthur Liang and USDA/FSIS representative Dr. Dan Engeljohn. Both presentations provided fascinating insight into changes afoot in food safety enforcement and policy at the federal level. Here are some of the take-aways:
• “Outbreaks Waiting to Be Discovered” – Dr. Liang opined that, based on surveilled illnesses, most food-borne illness outbreaks are not presently discovered. He believes that recent data shows that there are perhaps 2-3 times more outbreaks nationally than what’s been uncovered over the last few years.
• Food Safety Progress Being Undone by Retail Deli Operations – FSIS says there has been a “steady increase in risky behavior at the retail level.” According to Dr. Engeljohn, budget authority is being sought to intervene with retailers, particularly smaller supermarket deli operations.
• Negative Tested Product Can Be Considered Adulterated - FSIS will be issuing a policy soon that for the first time will consider a “negative tested product to be determined adulterated” under circumstances where an associated product tested positive for pathogens.
• Non-0157 STECs - FSIS will be finalizing methodology to detect non-0157 Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli (STEC).
Co-Authored By Guest Blogger Scott Hansen
According to its website, last Sunday’s New York Times article on E. coli and beef is among the most widely read pieces published by the newspaper this week. The article tells the story of a 22-year-old Minnesota dance instructor who was left paralyzed after being infected with a strain of E. coli in an “Angus Beef Pattie” she ate in fall of 2007. The article traces the story of her burger, points out the many limitations in the current system, and calls eating beef a “gamble.”
While the article is clearly targeted at meat producers and processors, food retailers selling beef products, such as grocery stores and restaurants, are also at risk. This piece is a reminder of the need for retailers to take steps to ensure proper systems and procedures for tracing food to its source (according to yesterday's statement by Secretary Vilsack, retail traceability of ground beef is soon to be a USDA requirement). The Times lauds Costco, which it says is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding.
Retailers should also be mindful of the utility of supplier agreements sufficiently tailored to limit liability or to procure insurance coverage. The greater protections afforded by well-drafted supplier agreements and carefully placed insurance are the best way to mitigate exposure.
Some may choose strong indemnification provisions and additional insured provisions. Another route, not yet the prevailing trend in the industry but perhaps in the near future, involves wrap-up insurance covering the entire supply chain, accompanied by covenants of cooperation between members of the supply chain.
Wrap-up insurance/covenants of cooperation approach has the advantage of potentially avoiding expensive and reputation-damaging litigation between members of the supply chain. Wrap-up insurance is also more likely to result in sufficient coverage to protect the retailer or restaurant chain.
No matter the path chosen, thoughtful placement of insurance coverage and confidence in supply chain contracts can help a food company weather the storm of a food-borne illness outbreak.
FDA has a short video "anatomy of a recall" about the investigation of the Salmonella outbreak and recalls associated with Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Anyone interested in learning how the federal government (with the help of Minnesota's "Team Diarrhea") goes about a food borne illness investigation and recall should take a look.
Kristin Choo has written a piece for the ABA Journal tracking the history of food safety regulation, recent outbreaks and current legislation pending in Congress. I am grateful to be mentioned in the piece. The article can be found at this link.
Ms. Choo writes:
Litigation is likely to increase as a pumped-up FDA, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, identifies more outbreaks of food-borne illness and collects more evidence about their causes. Meanwhile, many companies are likely to struggle, at least initially, with stricter requirements to develop safety plans, disclose business records when outbreaks occur and improve procedures for tracing products, according to Kenneth M. Odza, a member of Stoel Rives in Seattle, who litigates food safety cases and writes a blog on the subject.
Ms. Choo also includes a summary of information (see below) derived from CDC documented outbreaks (two or more people with the same illness after eating the same contaminated food) from 1990 to 2006 broken down by category of food. Note that nearly 50% of illnesses documented are from produce or "multi-ingredient." Produce and "multi-ingredient" account for about twice the number of illnesses as beef and poultry combined.
|Breads and Bakery||179||4,904|
|Luncheon and Other Meats||196||7,108|
When a food-borne illness outbreak happens, few food companies (especially those whose brand is at stake) want an unfamiliar defense lawyer who has little knowledge about food-borne illness responding to claims asserted against them. Unless a food company maintains a high, self-insured retention or has the lawyer of its choosing preselected, its insurer might appoint on the food company’s behalf low-cost defense counsel ill-equipped to respond to the claims and protect the brand.
Commercial General Liability insurance and Products liability insurance commonly maintained by food companies to protect them from the risks of food-borne illness outbreak usually will not cover the damage an outbreak can have on a company’s brand, stock value or sales. Lawyers appointed by insurers may have little understanding of the insured’s business or the impact the outbreak can have on its brand. Unlike in other areas, such as securities litigation, insurers are not as likely to have a panel or preapproved list of experienced food liability lawyers ready to deploy.
What a food company should consider before a food-borne illness outbreak happens:
1. Identify lawyers who are:
A. Familiar with (or will pledge on their dime to learn) the food company's business and brands;
B. Experienced in responding to consumer claims and food-borne illness; and
C. Knowledgeable about potential expert witnesses (about both those that the company will hire and those that plaintiffs will hire).
For companies with active crisis management plans , these lawyers likely have already been identified and included on the crisis management team.
2. Work with your broker, insurance coverage lawyer and preselected defense lawyer(s) to get preapproval of your chosen lawyers and agreement on their fees
For the sake of the business relationship (and self-interest), many insurers may agree to preapproval. Consider seeking preapproval at the time of renewal when a commercial insured may have the most leverage with an insurer.
For those with preapproved defense counsel, please consider sharing your experiences and insights. Comment or email.
Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (“CIFOR”) has published new guidelines designed to help local, state and federal agencies to improve their response to outbreaks. I became aware of this (again) through Ricardo Carvajal, who was a reviewer for the guidelines, and his firm’s FDA Law Blog. I agree with Ricardo that while the guidelines are designed for public agencies they have value for food businesses.
According to CIFOR, “[t]he guidelines are intended to give all agencies a common foundation from which to work and to provide examples of the key activities that should occur during the response to outbreaks of foodborne disease.”
Anticipating how the public health agency will behave will not only assist in crisis management, but it may also prevent the crisis. As discussed previously in this blog, one of the benefits of good crisis management is the ability to reach out and offer assistance to the investigating public health agencies. Keeping current on protocols that we can expect agencies to follow is a good practice.
The guidelines are also of some value to litigators. In the face of an outbreak investigation, they provide tools to assess the merits of the agency investigation. While it is always difficult to challenge a public health agency’s findings (no matter how flawed), the guidelines may help.
For lawyers and insurance adjustors, compartmentalizing food-borne illness claims is easy. They often see their jobs solely as minimizing the tort liability and legal fees. In my experience, attorneys and adjustors often fail to appreciate how outbreaks can affect a client’s (or even a whole industry’s) business going forward. Often, the long-term business losses of a food-borne illness outbreak, recall, or government alert are not insured.
There is no better example of how a nationally reported food-borne illness outbreak can affect an entire industry (or even an entire category of food products) than the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak. Two new studies published by the Agriculture & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) in its Choices magazine analyze consumer information and studies in the wake of the spinach outbreak.
Among the highlights from the first study, “Public Response to Large-Scale Produce Contamination” by Carra Cuite and William K. Hallman, were findings that Americans were more aware of advisories beginning than ending. For example, 87% of spinach consumers knew about the outbreak, but more than six weeks after the FDA had lifted its spinach warnings “almost half (45%) of people who were aware of the spinach recall were not confident that the recall had ended.”
A second study entitled “E. coli Outbreaks Affect Demand for Salad Vegetables” was authored by Faysal Fahs, Ron C. Mittelhammer, and Jill J. McCluskey. It examines the cumulative effects that sequential outbreaks can have on consumer demand and concludes that “the empirical results suggest that the subsequent outbreaks had a greater impact on the consumption of salad vegetables than the first.”
For food companies the lesson is this:
A lawyer’s role in responding to a food product crisis is important. But the roles of others, such as public relations experts, may be as important or more important in preserving the business. Make sure your lawyer (and your insurer) understands that the world may not revolve around simply resolving the tort claims as economically as possible.
President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group announced its Key Findings on July 7. Three groups of initiatives were announced: 1) Salmonella, 2) National Traceback and Response System, and 3) Improved Organization of Federal Food Safety Responsibilities. All of these represent major shifts in food policy. Coming changes will impact nearly every part of the nation’s food supply.
Despite Obama’s stepped-up food safety agenda, the question of how these changes will affect food-borne illness litigation remains. Bill Marler in a recent blog post reacting to the July 7 Key Findings says, “I really may live to see the government ‘put me out of business.’” No doubt that many of Obama’s initiatives will improve food safety. But will it eliminate food-borne illness and accompanying litigation? Not likely.
Many food companies today follow food safety precautions that exceed anything proposed by the Obama administration or Congress. Yet those same companies continue to experience food-borne illness outbreaks and are targets of the plaintiffs’ bar. E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens are persistent in the environment and successful at Darwinian evolution. In some sense, the pathogens that are the source of food-borne illness always seem at least one step ahead of the law.
Crystal ball: Obama’s initiatives will lead to a safer food supply but will also help the government detect more outbreaks that previously went undetected. Undetected outbreaks rarely lead to litigation; detected outbreaks almost always lead to litigation. Growth in food-borne illness litigation, therefore, should continue to accelerate.
USDA’s Be Food Safe Twitter Feed circulated its Fact Sheet titled “Beef . . . from Farm to Table.” First published a few years ago, this might be of interest to businesses involved in the sale, marketing, labeling, and/or packaging of beef. The article is a helpful primer on the history of beef, current industry practices, USDA’s role in inspection, consumer trends, cooking times, storage times, and food-borne illnesses associated with beef.
Food business clients frequently want to ensure that they have sufficient liability limits in the event of an outbreak (they also want to make sure they have adequate coverage, but this is a separate discussion). Determining the amount of a business’s limits depends on the business’s possible exposures. No one-size-fits-all formula is available. Every business should have a yearly conversation with its counsel and broker to determine what makes sense.
Disclaimers aside, a few pieces of recent news should help inform the discussion of liability limits:
First, we've learned more about the food-borne illness claims filed in the peanut outbreak earlier this year. Here’s a complete list of the claims (personal injury, commercial, etc.) asserted in the PCA bankruptcy and a newspaper article about them. Most of the claims appear to be filed by Marler Clark, though other food-borne illness claims also appear. So far, I count about 100 claims filed in the PCA bankruptcy (out of a CDC-reported 714 illnesses). Of those claims, at least eight resulted in deaths. The death claims are valued by the plaintiffs' at $10 million each. The nondeath claims are valued at up to $1 million each. Total personal injury claims are approximately $150 million. Plaintiffs have probably overstated their claims, but given the national outrage against PCA, a jury might lend credibility to the bloated values and award larger sums.
The other recent news is that CDC has released some interesting statistics about food-borne illnesses. For 2006, leafy vegetables and fruits/nuts accounted for the largest number of reported cases of food-borne illness (33%). Produce and nut products that might not have been associated in the past with food-borne illness (and, therefore, liability exposure) are now frequently associated with outbreaks. As exemplified by the PCA situation, claims from a national or even a regional outbreak from produce or nuts can easily exceed $100 million.
We’ve explained previously in this blog why increased surveillance by state and federal agencies will lead to detection of more outbreaks (and, therefore, more legal exposure). Others seem to agree.
Law360 published a nice interview with Jim Neale at McGuire Woods, another lawyer experienced in the food liability arena ( a Law360 subscription is needed to access the full article). Jim is quoted in the article as saying, “when, despite the best efforts of all concerned, outbreaks do occur, improved surveillance allows them to be caught and, most often, quickly tracked to the source.” And, as federal money increases to the state health departments (the front line in detecting most of the nation’s outbreaks), rates of detection will accelerate.
I’m asked frequently about the “anatomy of litigation.” I plan to write more in this space on the topic. For now, some may find useful the slides from a presentation I gave recently on “Defending Liability in Foodborne Illness Outbreaks.” I discussed what I see as three prototypes of consumer claims and possible strategies to respond to each.
Nobody disputes that consumers have a favorable view of organic certification in foods. Consumers generally believe that organic foods are healthier, and many believe they taste better. Yet, among food scientists, uncertainty prevails as to whether organics are safer, especially raw fruits and vegetables.
Absence of synthetic fertilizers is a primary distinction between organic and non-organic foods. And, from a safety standpoint, the absence of pesticides is the only provable claim that organic foods are healthier. But does the absence of one hazard imply the existence of another?
The prevailing pesticide substitute for organic foods is manure or composted manure. Dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157 reside in manure. Some guidelines exist for composting manure. Unfortunately, as I learned recently in a presentation by Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez at the University of Minnesota Food Science Department, these guidelines were written a decade ago, before science began to understand the prevalence of E. coli in the environment.
Science now understands that E. coli O157, for example, can persist for years in soil, let alone a more rich environment like manure. In some cases, it may be virtually impossible to rid of an environment of E. coli O157, short of treatment with non-organic substances such as tear gas or asphalt.
Outside of the 2006 spinach outbreak, there have been few food-borne illness outbreaks associated with organic fruits or vegetables. As organic farming continues to grow and detection of food-borne illness increases, the only question is how long it will be until another well-publicized outbreak. When it happens, will consumers continue to believe organic foods are safer? Will the industry be ready with evidence that proves the benefits of organic farming outweigh its risks?
Pork producers are feeling the effects of the swine flu as the number of reported cases of the virus increases. Stock prices for Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, and Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, fell 12 percent and 9 percent today, respectively. The Wall Street Journal reports that the prices of hogs, corn, and soybeans also dropped today. About 16 percent of U.S. pork exports have been shipped to Mexico over the past year – a country where so far 149 people have died from the swine flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials have emphasized that swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food and people cannot contract the virus by eating pork or pork products. That fact alone does not seem to be enough to quell consumers’ fears. MarketWatch earlier today quoted a pork industry analyst as saying the industry wants to avoid a slip of exports and prices akin to the 2003 avian flu outbreak in Asia. Analyst Heather Jones said she believes the pork industry “needs to undertake an aggressive and widespread informational marketing campaign.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. announced today that it is closing 10 of its Mexico City cafes in response to the swine flu outbreak and pursuant to instructions from the Mexican government.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending against eating raw alfalfa sprouts because of potential salmonella contamination.
According to the FDA, the salmonella contamination appears to be in seeds for alfalfa sprouts. As of yesterday, 31 cases of illness with Salmonella Saintpaul have been reported to the CDC. The reported cases are in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. The FDA cautions that the number of infected people may rise because some illnesses have not yet been confirmed with laboratory testing.
The FDA believes this outbreak may be linked to an outbreak from earlier this year. Its initial investigation traces the contaminated raw alfalfa sprouts to multiple sprout growers in multiple states. Additional details are available here.
Update to today’s earlier post: the Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill today that would strengthen food safety laws in Georgia. The Georgia House and Senate now will resolve minor differences in the proposed legislation and send a final version to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.
Also today, the AP reports that the chief executive of Kellogg Co. is urging food safety reforms, including written safety plans for all food companies and annual inspections of facilities that make “high-risk foods.” The AP article notes Kellogg lost $70 million worth of peanut products in the recent salmonella outbreak linked to Peanut Corporation of America.
This week brought news of yet another nationwide Salmonella outbreak from a source not yet identified by government regulators. The last time we had a nationwide Salmonella outbreak for an extended period of time without identification of a definitive source the federal government initially singled out tomatoes imported from Mexico (a huge array of products). In that case, the government was wrong and wreaked financial havoc on many farmers and businesses.
So far, in the current outbreak, nothing more specific than “poultry, eggs and cheese” have been identified as possible sources. Last year’s outbreak involved Salmonella Saintpaul whereas the current outbreak is Salmonella Typhimurium, which is more commonly associated with poultry, eggs and cheese, but could come from almost anything.
That a source has yet to be identified to the media doesn’t mean that state and federal officials aren’t zeroing in on possible sources. Restaurant owners, retailers and food manufacturers should be ready for the regulators when they come knocking.
In the past, I’ve had clients who were worked over aggressively by regulators (especially federal officials) who were investigating a large, nationwide outbreak with an uncertain cause. These officials face enormous pressure from those in Washington and from the public. Federal officials can make demands that threaten an entire business. They can demand credit card receipts, contact information for customers, personal employee information, shutdown of the business and more. Noncompliance might mean the officials will go to the press and advertise that the business is a target of the investigation. Unlike local health officials, who are usually vested in the well-being of local food producers under their jurisdiction, federal officials may care only about the investigation and nothing else.
Any food business should implement its crisis response team the minute it suspects it could be targeted in an investigation like the one that is currently ongoing. Specialists in food safety and foodborne illness investigations, genetic microbiologists, public relations experts, accountants, quality assurance personnel, purchasing personnel and lawyers should be lined up and ready to go. Events may unfold quickly for your business (over the course of a day or even a morning). Everything needs to be done at that moment to assist a business in navigating what may appear to be an impossible crisis.
Unfortunately, 2009 does not promise to be any easier than 2008 in protecting your business against food liability claims. Many argue that threats will only increase in the new year. Here are five things you can do to reduce exposure in the coming year:
1. Review Insurance Coverage and Limits Carefully – Both the variety and size of claims are escalating fast. For example, just a couple of years ago consumer claims from non-O157 E. coli, melamine, diacetyl or organic labeling seemed far-fetched, but all are now a grave reality. Federal, state and local governments will continue improving detection techniques since the rash of large, national food-borne illness outbreaks in 2006-08. The Obama administration will likely make increased funding in this area a priority. The odds that your company will be targeted in a nationwide outbreak resulting in claims in the hundreds of millions of dollars are increasing. Because of the exposure, insurance companies now more than ever will be looking for ways to reduce their coverage.
2. Review and Revise Supply Chain Agreements – Aside from insurance, one of the most effective ways to reduce, spread and mitigate risk is to ensure that those in your supply chain provide adequate insurance and indemnity for problems related to their products. But just because your supply agreement happens to mention insurance and indemnity does not necessarily mean those clauses will help when you need them. The only way to ensure that they will be honored and enforced is to ensure that your legal team (experienced in litigating these clauses) drafts these carefully.
3. Reassess Suppliers – Your choice of suppliers may be key to avoiding or reducing risk. Even if you demand sufficient insurance and indemnity from a supplier, a supplier of sufficient size may not be able to access insurance or have assets available to satisfy indemnity obligations. As important as your food safety, HAACP and other programs may be, they are really only as strong as your suppliers’ programs. Careful audit and assessment of your suppliers’ food safety programs is important.
4. Increase Scrutiny Against Fraudulent Imports – Melamine, tainted rice and now “laundered honey” are all good examples of how fraud in the global food chain can dramatically affect unsuspecting U.S. food sellers. [add more advice here?]
5. Review, Update and Rehearse Crisis Management Plans – How your company is prepared to respond to a crisis is a good predictor of how your company will weather the crisis. With the stakes increasing, you need to be prepared to face the worst. Continual review, updating and rehearsal of your crisis management plan is key. Everybody on the crisis management team needs to understand his or her role and be ready for different scenarios.
Last month, a state judge in Minnesota awarded summary judgment to a lettuce supplier of restaurants associated with an E. coli outbreak in 2006. The restaurant supplier brought suit against its suppliers. The suit appears to have been based at least in part on an indemnification agreement between Vistar (which delivered lettuce to restaurants) and Bix (which supplied lettuce to Vistar). According to the court, the agreement required Bix to “indemnify and hold harmless the Buyer and its customers from any claim, demand, loss, damage, liability, cost and expense, directly or indirectly, arising out of, or in connection with, or resulting from, the willful or negligent acts or omissions of the seller . . . sold by the Seller . . . to the buyer.”
Vistar, according to the court, “delivered sealed packages” of lettuce to the restaurants and did not process the product. Bix “both processed the lettuce (chopped it up) and packaged the lettuce.”
The court granted summary judgment to Vistar for two reasons:
(1) Vistar was the “classic passive seller in the chain of distribution” and therefore was not a manufacturer under Minnesota law; and
(2) The language of the indemnity “is clear, inclusive, and unequivocal,” and “Vistar’s tender of the claims against it to Bix should be honored.”
As to the latter reason, the court found relevant that “Bix has $2,000,000 in direct coverage and $10,000,000 in excess coverage insurance that would cover the claims made against it.”
A couple of observations:
1. Importance of Being Named an Additional Insured – Surprisingly, it does not appear from the judge’s decision that Bix was required to name Vistar as an additional insured. Had Bix’s carrier named Vistar as an additional insured, Vistar could have recovered against Bix’s insurer directly. Requiring a supplier to provide insurance (and verifying that the supplier has named you as an additional insured without unacceptable conditions) is a relatively easy, yet important step to protect your business.
2. Liberal Reading of Indemnity Clause – The court says that the indemnity obligation, which requires “willful or negligent acts or omissions,” is “clear, inclusive and unequivocal.” Yet the court found no “willful or negligent act or omissions” on the part of Bix. In fact, commenting on Bix’s own motion for summary judgment requesting that the court rule it too is not liable as a matter of law, the court said that Bix’s “argument is not without merit.” Not all courts may interpret this indemnification clause so favorably in the absence of a supplier’s negligence. This is yet another reason to ensure that your supplier has provided adequate insurance.
There was a nice article in the Canadian legal publication Law Times about the aftermath of the Maple Leaf Foods recall. The article praises Maple Leaf Foods for taking quick steps to salvage consumer confidence in the face of a Listeria outbreak across Canada. Specifically, the article discusses how Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain “immediately took responsibility for the plant outbreak.”
McCain is quoted as saying that “[g]oing through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants . . . . It’s not about money or legal liability, this is about being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”
Yet the author of the Law Times article interviewed a Canadian corporate communications expert who noted that “McCain likely did listen to legal counsel.” The expert said that McCain’s “statement was an acknowledgment that if limiting legal liability was the main objective of the company’s response, it would be near impossible to restore its reputation.”
“‘The whole reason that Maple Leaf has been successful, and even though the recall has cost them $20 million in product [recalls], [is that] their reputation is intact,’” the expert is quoted as saying.
Finally, the best quote from the article: “[L]awyers need to understand that legal liability isn’t the only factor to consider in a crisis. But that’s not an easy pill for many lawyers to swallow. They believe future litigation is prejudiced if a CEO makes an apology, says [the expert].”
Recently, I’ve received several requests for resources explaining the anatomy of a food-borne illness claim. In other words, what events can be expected, and when? What can or should a company (in particular the legal department) do in response to a claim?
Part I – Notice of an Outbreak (and Possible Claims)
First off, don’t panic. Your company’s crisis management team (which has been well-rehearsed for this scenario) should convene action upon the first notice of a possible outbreak—even before verification and before claims are apparent. Food safety experts should contact the health departments that may have identified the outbreak. Together with the legal, sales and quality assurance departments, your food safety experts should be involved in a full investigation of the possible outbreak. The earlier the intervention, the greater the possibility of collecting key information that may be useful in determining whether your company is linked to the outbreak and pinpointing other possible sources of the outbreak. Public relations experts should also be consulted at the first possible moment.
Checklist for the legal department:
- Log events, actions and communications. This is critical for responding to government agencies and to claims.
- Record all reported injuries. Collecting information about potential claims early is a key to mitigating those claims and future legal costs.
- Notify insurers. Insurance companies require prompt notice; insurers may also have assets available for crisis response.
- Document the investigation. Litigation may be protracted, and a well-documented investigation may be key to the company’s defense.
- Institute a litigation “hold” on the destruction of any company documents or emails. Don’t turn a bad situation into a nightmare; spoliation claims can take on a life of their own.
- Retain product samples for future testing. This may be critical to support experts’ opinions at trial and to preserve claims against suppliers.
- Review and retain vendor/supplier documents. Recovery against suppliers could be as important as or more important than insurance recovery.
- Assess the merits of a consumer hotline. It could be helpful in disseminating accurate information to consumers (inaccurate or conflicting information can lead to litigation) and in collecting information about the pool of potential plaintiffs.
- Assess the merits of a consumer/vendor reimbursement program. Like having a consumer hotline, providing immediate reimbursement could help dampen the volume of future plaintiffs.
Stay tuned for Part II – Receipt of the Demand Letter.
As discussed frequently in this blog, management of an outbreak at its inception determines the course of the crisis (and, in some cases, the fate of the company).
The Globe and Mail, in its ongoing coverage of the Maple Leaf Foods Listeria outbreak, today published a helpful punch list of 15 dos and don’ts for corporate executives managing a food-borne outbreak.
The last two items on the list may be the least obvious but are among the most important:
“14. Do make a list of the five questions you would least like to be asked and be prepared to answer them, since somebody will undoubtedly ask them.
“15. Do set up a rumour control hotline or website if rampant speculation could fuel the crisis.”
A hotline for collecting consumer information and complaints can be valuable. It allows the company not only to get control over and manage misinformation (the point being made in the Globe and Mail), but also to gather information about how many people the outbreak affects and who has fallen ill. Even more important, a hotline may enable the company to direct ill people to appropriate medical treatment, minimizing or even eliminating litigation.
An upcoming panel discussion at the Nutritional Law Symposium in Utah and a call from a reporter about the Maple Leaf Foods issue in Canada have me thinking a lot about crisis management. How a business responds at the outset of an alleged food-borne outbreak determines its fate in many ways.
Implementing a strategy from the start is a must to minimize the impact of a crisis. Yet the million- or billion-dollar question is, how do you develop the right save-the-business strategy when events are overwhelming and occurring at light speed? You need to bring together quality assurance, legal and food safety personnel (epidemiologists, microbiologists and other food safety experts) who can respond immediately to find the source of the outbreak and work with public health officials. A business must ascertain at the earliest possible moment the source and scope of the crisis. Once a business understands whether an outbreak is limited to a particular outlet or product line, and how many people might be affected, it can formulate a public relations, recall and legal strategy to limit exposure.
The key is execution. Everyone on the crisis management team must work in sync and understand their roles. And the secret to execution is preparation. Long before a crisis, a team (usually a combination of personnel from outside and inside the business) should be in place, rehearsed and ready. History is full of lessons: Some businesses executed crisis management well and emerged from dire crises stronger than before; others were unprepared, and their brands have long been forgotten.