You probably read about Topps Meat Company last fall. Or maybe you were one of the victims. Topps produced frozen hamburgers for distribution through Wal-Mart as well as schools, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. An E. coli outbreak sickened at least 40 people in eight states and resulted in the recall of 22 million pounds of frozen hamburgers -- a full year's worth of production at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, processing plant. AP Reporter Jeffrey Gold investigated how such an enormous recall and the demise of this company happened. (http://www.app.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080609/BUSINESS/806090305)
Gold's article showed a company ripe for a crisis:
- Topps didn't test some raw meat for potentially fatal bacteria and failed to follow through with daily cleansings.
- The company did not require that every batch of meat from slaughterhouses be certified free of E. coli.
- Topps decreased end-of-line testing for E. coli from monthly to three times a year.
- Meat ground on one day could be reworked with meat during another production cycle. That's not illegal, but food safety experts say it expands the risk of contamination. A careful company wouldn't do that.
- Federal inspectors criticized sanitary measures at the plant, citing "product residues observed on product contact surfaces" and "recurring deficiencies of unsanitary equipment," including "gouges, cracks and tears" on a conveyor belt.
- The USDA isn't blameless. Federal food inspectors overlooked crucial evidence that Topps used risky processing procedures and employed a flawed food safety plan.
With production halted and with the cost of recalling a year's worth of production, Topps closed its business on October 5, costing 87 people their jobs. Topps filed in late November to liquidate in bankruptcy court. Its assets were sold Jan. 8 for more than $1.25 million. More than 5,000 creditors, which include supermarkets and individuals who bought hamburgers, have unsecured claims of about $1 million. At least three families have sued the company, claiming relatives became ill from its hamburgers. They are seeking shares of insurance payouts that could total $22 million.
The Institute for Crisis Management works with many companies every year who don't want to be the next Topps Meat Company. But more organizations appear in the news just about daily who didn't have the foresight to predict and prevent crises. And we see others in the midst of a crisis who fail to manage communications messages and flow successfully. Effective crisis planning and training cost money and take time. Do you suppose Topps' management would happily spend whatever it would take to go back in time and do a lot of things differently?