This case study explores several aspects of the Sabra recall on Classic Hummus; and two important consultants, regarding the issues in crisis management, set many important aspects to consider. Media organizations, as well as several other news sites, have documented on the situation, allowing a free flow of comments to be made available to the public. There is a wide range of feelings that the public has expressed, and details of these responses will be better understood throughout this examination. Nevertheless, I have observed the recall to be framed uniformly by most publications as a widespread epidemic, while a few differing opinions remain nearby. Public relations trade publications give insightful criticism to the problem Sabra began to face April 7, 2015.
Keywords: Sabra recall, Classic Hummus, trade publications
On April 8, 2015, Sabra Dipping Company, best known for its production of hummus, issued a voluntary recall on five stock keeping units (SKUs) of Classic Hummus. After a routine collection was conducted in one of the company’s retail locations in Michigan, state inspectors found that samples of Sabra’s product tested positive for a food-borne bacterium called Listeria monocytogenes. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development confirmed the results on March 30, and executives of the company were notified by April 7. In the report, it was determined that only U.S. consumers would be affected by Sabra’s contaminated product, and that no official complaints regarding any illness had occurred prior to the public announcement.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Sabra Dipping Company issued immediate press releases announcing the company’s voluntary recall on approximately 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus, and provided detailed information for exactly which products were to be discarded or refunded. Sabra’s Classic Hummus with sell dates of May 11 and May 15 were the only products considered to be infectious. The news releases also announced that Listeria monocytogenes can cause short-term problems, but can also cause pregnant women to have miscarriages or stillbirths. According to the news releases and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015), individuals with high risk of fatal infections include: young children, older adults, pregnant women, medicated organ transplant patients, and people with autoimmune or weakened immune systems.
With a health crisis such as this, it is critical to understand the history prior to the contamination. Sabra Dipping Company was founded in 1986 in Queens, New York as Sabra Blue & White Foods. The preliminary mission was to bring healthy and delicious Mediterranean cuisines to people’s everyday diets, which included foods such as: hummus, eggplant dips, babaganoush spreads and vegetarian sides. However, Sabra has recently been inspired by tastes that are served all around the world. This company has introduced foods such as salsa, guacamole and Greek yogurt spreads. As the company started to expand, an advisory board was established to better understand and support communal nutrition. A team of nutrition research and education experts that provide guidance and solutions to health professionals and consumers represent the Sabra Wellness & Nutrition Advisory Board. These individuals have built a registered dietitian toolkit and presentation that provides an enormous amount of information such as nutritious recipes, the history of hummus and everyday snacks to eat.
Sabra has gone to great lengths to secure the health of communities nationwide; and the actions described in the company news releases prove that. For example, on April 19, 2010, manufacturers worked to decrease their carbon footprints by implementing recycled packaging for nearly 100 percent of its products. Three years after the announcement of going green, Sabra took more action by filing a petition requesting that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration establish a standard identity for hummus to ensure no consumer would be subject to economic fraud or deception.
Sabra is clearly dedicated to serving its community, so how is it that this company had to issue a recall? Cross-contamination, storage temperatures and cooking temperatures all play significant roles in this case. Sabra was presented with this crisis; because the standard of production was not monitored close enough. Either machinery went without proper care, or the refrigerators, in which the hummus was stored, were not gauged accurately.
Overall, Sabra handled the crisis swiftly, leaving only a few errors to note. The company alerted the FDA, and issued a voluntary recall less than 24 hours after the company was notified of the situation. The company and the FDA published press releases explaing the extent of the situation, and detailed information was given to better ensure the safety of all U.S. consumers. In the announcement, the company proved to have pinpointed the exact products that were contaminated, and guaranteed that every consumer be refunded.
After the initial publication, Sabra announced the situation on Facebook and Twitter to inform individuals utilizing less traditional media. The first Facebook post, announcing the presence of Listeria, made wave on Wednesday April 8, 2015 at approximately 10:39 p.m. that was reiterated a minute later on Twitter. Sabra quickly responded to several comments made on Facebook and Twitter by answering applicable questions to the issue.
However, some of the communication efforts pose interesting questions. For example, a woman replied to the announcement on Twitter stating that her son was affected by Sabra’s product, and no one was answering her calls. What if her son’s symptoms had drastically escalated? Busy phone lines indicate that there might not have been enough employees on hand to help customers in a reasonable manner. How many employees were answering the phones? Crises that involve health issues are undoubtedly frightening to deal with. Nevertheless, Sabra should have had more help, and extended its customer service hours for a considerable amount of time. Only accepting customer calls Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. leaves customers with more frustration and less gratification.
Another misconception about the efforts Sabra organized includes the absence of a spokesperson. This public figure would potentially be the key in reiterating the message Sabra should strive to continuously display to the public. According to Andrew Blum (2015), having a clear and focused message is of the utmost importance. Tips that the public relations consultant and former journalist provided in PR News include: keeping the message simple, using media channels wisely, designating one spokesperson with one consistent message, and not forgetting local media. If there is a quarrel between the company and media, things could potentially spiral out of control.
Public Responses vs. Media Responses
As stated earlier, Sabra handled this crisis swiftly by issuing a voluntary recall less than 24 hours after being notified; and public opinions from U.S. consumers had a number of good and bad things to say about it. The company answered every practical question via Facebook or Twitter, but some of the responses caused serious backlash that could have been detrimental to Sabra’s recovery. Sabra’s responses toward health issues showed to be unhelpful by the replies the company was receiving. When asked about certain health precautions to take, Sabra generalized its responses by directing all questions to either customer service or a physician.
For example, one commenter from a news site said, “I don’t eat Sabra, anyway. Benefits to Strauss are benefits to the Israeli occupation.” Another public response posted via Twitter said, “They clearly are not capable of handling the volume of concerned consumers that are at risk of being poisoned.” In observing commentary made on the Internet, a pattern emerged. Upset consumers were either triggered by ethnic origin or the company’s ethical decisions.
As seen on Facebook and Twitter, negative responses included accusing Sabra of stealing cultural foods, being ill equipped to handle the situation, along with a number of other things. On the other hand, many other U.S. consumers were satisfied by Sabra’s responses, and continued to show support. For example, a woman stated her opinion via Facebook responding to other commenters by saying, “I don’t understand the uproar, especially over the response they gave to the question. That’s the best, and only, advice to give someone in the situation…”
As far as the media is concerned, news outlets such as CNN and Fox News published online content to frame the situation as being a widespread epidemic rather than a problem within a single company. These outlets recognized Listeria as a reoccurring issue publicized in many other cases such as Blue Bell Creameries and Taylor Farms. Within the last few weeks, hummus, as well as ice cream and California spinach, have been recalled due to this food contamination; and more than 25 Blue Bell products have had to be temporarily taken off the market.
However, other media outlets are framing this issue in a different light. For example, Slate Magazine is bringing attention to the fact that only the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spoken publicly about the issue. News outlets have taken quotes from Sabra’s news release, but nothing further has been quoted. Overall, there are many consumers that are deeply upset by the organization’s actions, and the media has framed this issue by recognizing Listeria as a bigger issue rather than a single mishap within Sabra. To my knowledge, media outlets have only commented on the organization’s actions in regards to the customer service hotline. Alison Griswold from Slate Magazine stated, “when I tried the hotline four times this morning and afternoon, I repeatedly got a busy signal.” Responses from the public and the media have overwhelming reflected the actions of Sabra in a negative way.
Critique of Sabra’s Effectiveness
The effectiveness of the organization’s public relations activities proved to be rather positive despite inevitably nasty remarks made about the issue. Many U.S. consumers still showed support through the comments made on Facebook and Twitter, and Sabra was able to make a quick recovery. If actions had not been taken as quickly as they were, it is fair to say that things could have turned out quite badly. However, there are a considerable amount of concerns to note.
For instance, why did it take eight days for state inspectors to notify Sabra about the contamination? Poor communication can be speculated on either side of the telephone. However, Sabra should have maintained better contact with all state inspectors, so that action could have been taken before April 8. Another concern about poor communication can be observed through the responses Sabra made about certain precautions to take. Instead of continuously telling consumers to appoint further questions to their physicians, Sabra could have done a better job of putting out content that consumers were most interested in reading. More information should have been made readily available, because of the amount of consumers that were affected. It is the company’s social and corporate responsibility to help the environment, care for the community, and promote better nutrition.
The ethical practices can also be further examined through Sabra’s social media timeline. The company continuously promoted its brand on the day that Sabra was notified about the bacteria. Even if word was spread about the contamination later in the day, Sabra should still have considered taking down the posts on Facebook and Twitter to steer focus toward the situation at hand. Nevertheless, the company did wait almost three weeks before resuming normal online activity. Overall, Sabra might have had a few communication issues, but the company managed to handle the situation in a timely manner that allowed for continuous customer support.
From now and going forward, Sabra should maintain regular, direct contact with all internal and external personnel, whether it be state inspectors or local news reporters. The more open and honest a company is, the better off it will be. Also, a more effective algorithm for crisis management should be mapped out immediately. According to Bob Feldman (2014), having a well-developed issues-escalation index can help considerably in an aggravated situation such as Sabra’s. The main premise of having an index is so that all parties can evaluate the extent of the situation; and the first step is to consider what data to track. This list includes the volume of customer complaints, sales patterns, social commentary and stakeholder polling. Each variable can be evaluated on a scale of one to 100, and then from there, an appropriate set of instructions can be further implemented.
For example, social commentary could be a bigger factor than anything else in the situation. If executives can make a decision on where to focus their attention, it could potentially prevent the threat of multiple, negative outcomes. Feldman states that having an issues-escalation index “will never fully replace good, seasoned judgment,” but it can give the company better access to important information that is necessary. From what I have learned about effective communication in the past, it is crucial for troubled companies to be transparent. Hiding behind the current will do much harm and no good. A good example of this is demonstrated in the case in which Progressive Auto Insurance tried to evade compensation through hiding behind a Maryland statute. This case is a great representation of how unethical practices can alter a company’s reputation. Based on what I have read about Sabra’s case, the company seemed to pull through because of how forthcoming everyone was about detailed information regarding the affects of Listeria. Furthermore, these recommendations can be evaluated by constructing polls on Sabra’s website and allowing health professionals the opportunity to fully assess its future efforts.
Companies dealing with health crises will never be able to fully evade public scrutiny. However, Sabra demonstrated high valued efforts that can contribute to a quick recovery. The company showed to have high quality, public relations efforts showing other companies that food contaminations can be managed. Overall, Sabra responded swiftly to customer questions online, but suffered a considerable amount due to the content displayed. It is so important for a company to have a consistent message in time of crises, but that is different from withholding valued information from the public.
Corrections and future recommendations I have come up with can be attributed to the two trade publications I read regarding tips on having a clear message and ways of attaining a well documented issues-escalation index. Other aspects that allowed me to fully examine this case have so much to do with the other case studies we have analyzed in class. Without ethical practices and true transparency throughout an organization, it makes it that much harder to be successful. Sabra took the necessary precautions by issuing a voluntary recall, and there was minimal damage because of it. Classic Hummus was recalled on April 8 because of bacteria that was present in over 30,000 cases; but production has since been carefully evaluated. Sabra continued normal promotional activities online on April 28, and has made it through a major health crisis.
Blum, A. (2015, February 23). PR Insider: Keeping the Message Focused in a Crisis. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://www.prnewsonline.com/featured/2015/02/23/pr-insider-keeping-the-message-focused-in-a-crisis/
Feldman, B. (2014, February 14). An algorithm for crisis management. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://www.prweek.com/article/1283494/algorithm-crisis-management
United States Department of Health and Human Services | HHS.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://www.hhs.gov/