Food safety crisis management: The first 48 hours

Response by the affected farm or industry in the first few hours of a food safety crisis can make a difference in the damage caused. Effective crisis management depends on a number of well executed principles.

In the event of a food safety crisis, the actions taken in the first few days can make the difference between the affected farm or industry surviving the incident and its demise. A food safety crisis can face any food industry, at any time. Natural disasters, product tampering or poor harvest practices can all start a chain of events leading to the crisis. Ultimately, when operations fail, and people get sick, a crisis begins. According to Michigan State University Extension, good crisis management depends on the following well-executed principles.

Be Proactive

When an outbreak occurs, the farm or industry implicated needs to communicate that it has measures in place to address the risks. A crisis should not be a surprise. A well-written food safety manual detailing risks and risk reduction procedures is the roadmap to ensure you are doing all you can.  Without a food safety manual, at best, you’ll be committing random acts of food safety and at worst, you’ll be making people sick.

Be empathetic and open

The 1996 Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak is often referenced as a good way to handle a food safety crisis. In that crisis, Odwalla expressed how deeply sorry they were for the outbreak. They expressed genuine concern for the victims as well as how the E. coli got in the juice in the first place and what they were doing to fix the problems.

Take responsibility

Farms that point fingers during a foodborne illness outbreak by saying “It’s not us” or blame the consumer for poor handling practices often don’t recover. It is critical for the industry or farm to react quickly and discuss their risk management strategies. Part of having a good food safety culture is sharing specific GAPs practices, audit/certification results, testing procedures and data

The first 48 hours of a crisis set the stage for success or failure. Those farms or industries that effectively manage these 48 hours will have a much better chance of weathering a food safety crisis than those that don’t.

If you would like more information on implementing good food safety practices in your operation, feel free to contact the Agrifood Safety Workgroup at (517) 788-4292 or at

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