18 July 2018 | Online since 2003

16 May 2011

US battles to restore confidence

Robert Krouse, Midwest Poultry Services

Delegates at the London conference of the International Egg Commission heard how industry leaders in the United States battled to restore consumer confidence in eggs following a huge salmonella scare.

In August last year more than half a billion eggs were recalled following a large increase in the number of reported salmonella cases. It was the biggest recall of its kind in American history, and although it involved less than one per cent of all the eggs produced in the country the recall made huge headlines and threatened to seriously harm consumer confidence.

The 550 million recalled eggs came from just two farms in Iowa, but dozens of brands were affected all across America. The headlines were sensational.

"When it hit we were completely astounded by the amount of media coverage it received," said Robert Krouse of Midwest Poultry Services, an egg producer in Indiana.

He said that within the first week 2,400 stories were appearing each day in the press. And he said that whilst the traditional media was the "engine that drove the story" the issue also found its way onto social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, where individuals discussed the issue and raised questions about whether eggs were safe to eat.

Egg sales fell as a result of the stories, but Robert Krouse said that what was most remarkable was that within seven weeks of the crisis egg sales in the United States had returned to normal. "That was a remarkably short period of time." He said. "Perhaps some people have short memories, but I think a lot of it is to do with the effort the industry put into handling the crisis as well as we could."

By coincidence, the US egg industry was at least partially prepared for dealing with the crisis as a result of measures introduced by the American Food and Drug Administration shortly beforehand.

Robert Krouse explained, "On July 9 2010 the Food and Drug Administration in the United States promulgated a new set of regulations called the Shell Egg Food Safety Act that put quite a few safety requirements on shell egg producers in the US. Any egg producer that had more than 50,000 birds – which is 80 per cent of production in the United States – had to adopt certain new preventative measures, including refrigeration and testing in the barns."

He said one concern amongst producers was that producers were going to have to test all their layer houses for salmonella enteritidis. Many in the industry had not been doing so beforehand. "We didn’t know what we would find. There were some people in the government who were indicating that we would find salmonella on 40 per cent of farms."

Robert Krouse said, "The uncertainty, fortunately, caused us to put a framework in place to deal with the negative publicity that might come out of this. If it turned out that there was salmonella enteritidis on 40 per cent of farms we knew it was going to take a long time to get consumer confidence back," he said. "What we did learn was that you cannot be too well prepared because it was overwhelming once it started. What happened was much larger than any of us had anticipated."

At the time the crisis struck the industry had a web site coming on line called eggsafety.org. This very quickly became the hub for all information about the recall and within the first 10 days as many as five million hits were recorded on the site.

Many of the government’s sites linked to eggsafety.org and it soon became a highly effective resource for managing the message that was being presented to the public. "We wanted to try to funnel as many people as we could into a site that we felt had accurate information and a site that we could control," said Robert Krouse.

The industry also established a media hotline, responding to more than 2,000 media enquiries through this hotline. There were also 3,000 consumer inquiries, a total 25,000 print stories were written and there were more than 32,000 mentions of the egg recall on Facebook. He said the industry came to realise that it was necessary to have people who were prepared to get involved in conversations on the internet; it was not enough to simply read what was being said on social networking sites. Traditional media also wanted local farmers in each state who they could talk to.

Robert Krouse said that as the crisis dragged on the Humane Society took the opportunity to introduce the issue of animal welfare. The industry responded by inviting an influential mom blogger onto a farm to see how hens were treated.

"Ninety per cent of people who come to our farms to see what we do come away with good impressions," said Robert. "The more we show people what we do the more we can lift the veil." He said journalists from USA Today and the New York Times were also taken on farm visits. Both resulted in positive articles in the press.

The American Egg Board allocated one million dollars to a campaign to restore consumer confidence in eggs. Advertisements ran in newspapers and on radio as a statement from America’s egg farmers. A dietician went on television explaining that eggs were perfectly safe to eat when handled and cooked properly and industry leaders were speaking to legislators and regulators all along to explain what was being done to ensure consumer safety.

"People want to know what you are doing to ensure it will not happen again," said Robert Krouse, who said that the industry met with the FDA to explain how effective the measures put in place shortly before the crisis had been. It also outlined additional measures that the industry was prepared to take in future.

The result of all this work, he said, was that egg sales had recovered after being initially hit by the recall. Today, demand for eggs was still holding up at levels the industry enjoyed before the onset of the crisis.


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