Train for the Worst Crisis scenario seems all too real

January 12, 2010 10:06 AM
The crisis management team of thefictional Classic Co-op works through the details of a food-borne illness affecting its dairy products.

I had to keep reminding myself: "This is only a drill.” Yet the scenario of a national, dairy foodborne illness sickening hundreds and even killing several individuals seemed all too real in the make-believe crisis management drill I was participating in.

The frantic pace, with updates coming in every few minutes—amid questions from reporters, farmers, plant managers, even union reps—made the drill an adrenaline-pumping, what-do-I-do-next blur of information and demands for both answers and action.

The drill was sponsored by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and funded by dairy producer checkoff dollars to train not only media specialists but also dairy company executives and plant managers on how to handle a crisis. The drill, one of several conducted around the country, was held in Minneapolis this past fall.

I was playing the role of an embedded reporter assigned to the fictional Classic Co-op (CC)—a small, Midwestern co-op serving 1,500 dairy farm families. Products range from fluid milk and cheese to infant and adult nutrition products and long-shelf-life dairy products. A number of CC products were implicated in the illness outbreak. I was reporting on the actions taken by the Classic management team of 15 individuals.

The scenario for the drill was that more than 1,200 people across the country had become severely ill with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Five had succumbed and one baby was hospitalized with liver failure.

The Food and Drug Administration had issued a Class I recall for baby formulas containing dairy ingredients. It was also advising the public to stop eating all American-style natural and processed cheeses and any prepared foods containing these types of cheeses.

As soon as the CC team entered its crisis-management center, the pace of the exercise exploded:

  • The editor of a farm blog got past CC security and burst into the room, taping everyone with a Flip Video camera. He demanded that company officials explain how CC was involved in the outbreak and what it was doing to stop it.
  • A text message was received saying that a chain of convenience stores that CC supplies was pulling all dairy products from its shelves.
  • The union steward from the CC manufacturing plant came in, wanting to know what the symptoms of the illness were, if workers were in danger and whether CC's insurance policy would cover health costs.
  • CC's receptionist called in next to say the company's phone system was being overwhelmed with panicked consumer calls. Reporters were also calling, asking for comments on the financial impact of the crisis. And a board member called to demand an immediate conference call with top management to get information out to farmer owners.
  • CC's chief executive officer came in to say she was scheduling a conference call with her farmer board in 15 minutes and needed all pertinent details from the crisis team.
  • She no sooner left than CC's dairy transportation and logistics manager got word that all of the company's tankers of milk were being returned to their shippers of origin and that CC should prepare to reaccept the milk back into its storage silos.
  • An Associated Press reporter rushed into the room, saying he was on a 15-minute deadline for his syndicate of several thousand newspapers and needed an immediate interview with the highest-ranking executive available.
  • Another message said that federal health agencies had issued an order requiring schools, hospitals and nursing homes to recall and stop feeding all dairy products.
  • Within minutes of that notification, CC's international sales manager received word that Mexico and China were halting all U.S. dairy product imports and that other exporters were demanding confirmation of product safety. And all of this was happening within the first 90 minutes of the exercise.

Remember, this was only a drill. Yet the way the crisis unfolded was very real. "There is no room for complacency. There is no room for believing something like this couldn't happen to the dairy industry,” says Eric Pehle, executive vice president of Weber Shandwick, the public relations agency that worked with DMI to develop the crisis management training. "As an industry, we have to be ready and we have to be prepared to respond to such a crisis.”

The drill taught Jerry Messer how fast and how serious a crisis can get out of control. Messer is a North Dakota dairy producer and Midwest Dairy Association chairman. "They were hitting us from every single angle, and it made you feel really uncomfortable about dealing with the scope of the situation,” he says.

"We [as an industry] are very much at risk because we have a very perishable product,” Messer adds. "It's important that we protect the health and safety of the consuming public, and it's important that we get such a crisis behind us as fast as possible.”

If processing plants are paralyzed by a foodborne outbreak, producers won't have anywhere to go with their milk. Food safety is always the first imperative, and recovering from a crisis as quickly as possible is the next priority, Messer says.

For Joan Behr, director of communications for Foremost Farms USA in Baraboo, Wis., the crisis drill taught three lessons. First, even though Foremost has crisis management plans in place, the co-op has not regularly practiced to implement those plans.

"We will develop a drill schedule so our employees understand their roles and can react quickly and appropriately during a crisis,” she says.

Behr also appreciated that DMI's crisis management team has contacts in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Both agencies sent representatives to the drill. "We have contacts with USDA and state ag departments, but we don't have established connections with federal agencies such as CDC or the FBI,” she says. "Both might be needed in such a crisis.”

The third lesson was the power of social media in spreading news about the crisis, she says. Blogs, tweets, Facebook, e-mail and cell phones provide instantaneous communication to everyone in the country, but whether the information is accurate is a whole other story.

And that probably is the biggest lesson of the drill, says Weber Shandwick's Pehle. Having a crisis management plan in place is the first step.

But knowing who you can call for additional resources and help is key. Since many dairy companies market nationally, even internationally, they can be quickly overwhelmed if such a crisis ever hits.

Dairy checkoff organizations are planning three more regional crisis drills in 2010, the first taking place at the end of March in Seattle.

Bonus content:

Who you gonna call?

How will you respond?

What will you say?

Software to assess farm vulnerability to terrorism


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