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Taco Bell’s PR Fiasco

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 15, 2006

It seems increasingly likely that PR executives or advisers to Taco Bell profoundly misunderstood the nature of foodborne illness outbreaks and that, in their quest to win back customers for Taco Bell, they both threw their produce vendors to the wind and put Taco Bell in a more difficult position.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece pointing out that at the exact same time when Taco Bell announced its “presumptive positive” result on green onions, it also had presumptive positive results on another item:

“…Taco Bell had test results indicating that an additional ingredient may have had problems when it pointed the finger at green onions. Early tests also showed chili pepper, like green onions, was “presumptive positive” for E. coli, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety and the University of Georgia, who was hired by the fast-food chain to help pinpoint the source of the E. coli.”

Now if Taco Bell was just interested in getting all the information out there as quickly as possible, it would have announced both presumptive positive results. The fact that it didn’t indicates that there was likely another agenda at work.

Anyone who has ever taken a crisis management course related to product recalls gets shown the example of how effective public relations by Johnson & Johnson saved the Tylenol brand when it had a problem with cyanide tampering and how poor public relations by Source Perrier damaged the Perrier brand when it had a problem with benzene:

[Johnson & Johnson] immediately alerted consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product. They told consumers not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined. Johnson & Johnson, along with stopping the production and advertising of Tylenol, recalled all Tylenol capsules from the market. The recall included approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol, with a retail value of more than 100 million dollars.

This was unusual for a large corporation facing a crisis. In many other similar cases, companies had put themselves first, and ended up doing more damage to their reputations than if they had immediately taken responsibility for the crisis. An example of this was the crisis that hit Source Perrier when traces of benzene were found in their bottled water. Instead of holding themselves accountable for the incident, Source Perrier claimed that the contamination resulted from an isolated incident. They then recalled only a limited number of Perrier bottles in North America.

When benzene was found in Perrier bottled water in Europe, an embarrassed Source Perrier had to announce a world wide recall on the bottled water. Apparently, consumers around the world had been drinking contaminated water for months. Source Perrier was harshly attacked by the media. They were criticized for having little integrity and for disregarding public safety.

Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, was praised for their actions by the media for their socially responsible actions. Along with the nationwide alert and the Tylenol recall, Johnson & Johnson established relations with the Chicago Police, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way the company could have a part in searching for the person who laced the Tylenol capsules and they could help prevent further tamperings. Johnson & Johnson was given much positive coverage for their handling of this crisis.

The key to the Johnson & Johnson campaign, though, was to first clear the decks by recalling everything and then, having identified and fixed the problem, come back to market with a new triple-sealed Tylenol.

The plan is now standard and Taco Bell was in a sense trying to do the same thing: They closed implicated restaurants, threw out all the food, sanitized them and then were ready to do business again.

In this case, however, the translation from the Tylenol incident to food was difficult. The Tylenol method depends, crucially, on being able to identify and solve the problem.

So what Taco Bell executives wanted was for something… anything… to be identified as the “cause” of the problem so that the problem could be “fixed.”

To publicize two separate presumptive positives would keep doubt alive in the mind of the consumer, so the decision was made to announce the green onion presumptive positive and squash the chili pepper presumptive positive.

The truth is that most food safety experts were aghast at Taco Bell’s decision to release the presumptive results at all. One put it this way:

Taco Bell made public the results of its presumptive E coli testing. Such tests are known to frequently result in false positives. Taco Bell consciously made this decision without regard for confirmatory testing in the works by FDA. This premature release of misleading data and subsequent premature incrimination of a particular food item, green onions, formed the basis for the Taco Bell statements about the safety of operations that I and others have pointed out.

Until the food item that served as the vehicle for E coli is identified, Taco Bell cannot rightfully claim the outbreak is over. You know Taco Bell has some pretty sharp food safety people, I have worked with them…. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions leading up to the release of the presumptive positive results.

After announcing the presumptive positive on green onions, Taco Bell removed them from their restaurants. The obvious implication: Like Tylenol’s triple-seal cap, Taco Bell wanted its customers to believe that the removal of green onions was a corrective action to the problem.

As The Wall Street Journal put it: “…the company had focused on explaining that it had found the suspected cause of the outbreak and had remedied the situation.”

But Taco Bell had to change its tune when green onions were exonerated, as The Wall Street Journal explained:

The company was forced to change its tack on Monday night when federal officials said they couldn’t confirm the chain’s suspicions that green onions were infected with E. coli. Taco Bell also disclosed it had determined the onions were negative for E. coli and that it now doesn’t know what caused the contamination that has sickened people.

In other words, the desire of the chain’s executives to get this behind them led them to release preliminary and selective information.

Now the FDA is implicating shredded lettuce, and Taco Bell is in trouble. After all, in the way it handled the situation when it thought the problem was green onions, it has established that the proper solution is banning the item from its menu. In fact, Taco Bell not only removed green onions but announced that “It has no plans to sell green onions again.”

Yet somehow, when a more important ingredient is implicated, no such solution is required.

The decision by Taco Bell to try and “manage” the information will make this a more difficult problem to solve.

One other issue: The decision to accuse a producer of making product that sickens people is very serious. Livelihoods are at stake, and not only at the implicated farm — all through the country, there are wholesalers and others that make a living selling a product.

Did it never occur to anyone at Taco Bell that it would be wrong to imply things that its experts knew very possibly weren’t true?

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