Saturday, June 1, 2013

Townsend Farms Believes Silence Is Golden When Hepatitis Linked to Fruit Blend

A frozen fruit mix, Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend, has been linked with a hepatitis A outbreak in five western states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mix is commonly used in Smoothies. (http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/Outbreaks/2013/A1b-03-31/index.html)

So far, 30 people have been infected, and nine of them have been hospitalized. The states with reported cases are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend is a mix of frozen berries and pomegranate seeds.

"Company records show that the fruit mix with contaminated ingredients was sent to only Costco stores, said William E. Gaar, an attorney for Townsend Farms. Costco has removed the product from its shelves, he said. The outbreak has been traced to a type of pomegranate seeds from Turkey that are in the Townsend Farms fruit mix, Gaar said. The mix contains pomegranate seeds and other produce from Argentina, Chile and the United States, according to the label."  (http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/31/health/frozen-fruit-hepatitis/index.html?hpt=hp_t2)

CDC notified the company about the outbreak Thursday and sent  investigators to the Townsend Farms processing plant in Fairview, Oregon. The highly contagious infection inflames the liver and limits its ability to function.
 
When I read about the hepatitis, my first thought was to check the Townsend Farms website. I Googled, "Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend," hoping to find the company's site. What I found instead were 27 keystrokes on "next" before the vast majority of suggestions didn't involve hepatitis. I never got to the company until I widened the search to "Townsend Farms."
 
There I found the company website. (http://www.townsendfarms.com/)  But to my disappointment, I could find no mention of any hepatitis outbreak.  This was more than 48 hours after CDC notified Townsend Farms, and not even the website's "Food Safety" tab mentioned the problem. Yet some 27 pages worth of Google search had time to write an article or post about the hepatitis link to Townsend Farms.
 
Okay, how about Costco informing consumers. Nothing on its website but marketing and pretty pictures. (http://www.costco.com/) The products were removed from Costco shelves, according to Townsend Farms' attorney, and the Smoothie machine emptied and cleaned I assume, but some people may have the blend in their home freezers. If they aren't avid readers or news junkies, they may not know about the contamination of Turkish pomegranate seeds.
 
I wrote about a similar let's-pretend strategy by Jimmy John's when it quietly removed sprouts from all its sandwich shops without even an explanation to its managers. I thought silence was a mistake for Jimmy John's and I think it's a mistake for Townsend Farms. If you are in a food production or processing business, you owe your customers an explanation when your product is contaminated and recalled.
 
Failure to be open can raise suspicion about other products you distribute. Quality questions can affect your business for a long time if consumers lose confidence and link your name to sickness. You should offer an explanation for contamination, and what you have done so it can never happen (the same way) again. In this case, Townsend Farms should be reassuring customers that only this one product in western Costco stores are at fault; all else is safe.
 
Cases like this should make clear to you the value of having a well-crafted crisis communications plan. If the CDC links contamination to one of your products, you don't have much time to react before word is out. Your internal investigations will take some time, but you need to be ready with a statement that expresses your regret, your promise to cooperate with health authorities, and your commitment to investigate to ensure such a thing never happens again.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I contacted Costco in Vista and San Marcos, CA this morning and they were unaware. However, they did confirm that we purchased 2 bags of item no 595820 - Townsend Farms Organic Frozen Berry mix n the past two months. Ironically, we just completed the last bag yesterday morning. We learned of the outbreak of Hepatitis just last night.

After informing Costco of my concern, they stated they would gladly issue a refund. I was also provided with the FDA telephone number 1-888-safe-food.

Vernell said...

This is cool!

chris vogas said...

I really liked your blog, applause the great information about farming.
Farm Chemicals Accreditation