The Fipronil crisis gives me a sense of déjà vu. In 1999 dioxin ended up in the food chain via a Belgian fat rendering plant. This snowballed into 2,000 farms and hundreds of food products being blocked, resulting in empty shelves in supermarkets. And in the establishment of the Federal Food Agency (Federaal Voedselagentschap), the Belgian equivalent of the NVWA. Communication-wise it was a chaotic situation for months, without any form of coordination.
In case of a product recall, the basic principles of prompt, open and transparent communication apply. That is, in case of a public recall where consumer safety or health is at issue. This means that the producer notifies the NVWA (compulsory) and the producer and/or supermarkets communicate with buyers and consumers. Besides public recalls, quiet recalls take place almost every week. For instance, because there’s something wrong with the packaging or quality of a food product without presenting any safety or health risk. In most cases the NVWA is not notified, and the producer only communicates with his buyers, like supermarkets. No doubt the producer of Superunie formulas waffles and cookies did the same thing.
As a spokesperson of Emté supermarket said: “We’re expecting to see many more of such quiet recalls”. And that’s exactly the problem with the Fipronil crisis. In this crisis there is no coordination or collaboration between the industry, the government and the NVWA. Plus, NVWA’s way of communicating can be qualified as unfortunate, to say the least. Result: the consumer is at a complete loss. And then I’m leaving aside the differences in standards and methods between European countries. So far, the Dutch consumer has been quite matter-of-factly about the commotion. But now the quiet recalls are getting media attention, after the public recalls of eggs, this could cause confusion (again) and damage the reputation of all parties involved even more. Especially if this leads to a series of recalls, which isn’t inconceivable at all.
I get that a supermarket doesn’t pull out all public recall communication tools in case of a quiet recall. But I don’t think it’s wise to take the usual approach to quiet recalls in the present situation. Why not provide clear instructions and Q&As to supermarket staff, and product information on the shelves referring to a website? The website could contain a detailed explanation of the supermarket’s policy and (precautionary) measures, as well as an up-to-date list of the availability of products.
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