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Spreading the word on social media


Social media has redefined how companies and individuals spread the word about food contamination outbreaks.

Peter Begg, senior director of global quality programs at Deerfield, Illinois-based snack producer Mondelez International Inc., said the company has “started to do social media a heck of a lot more than we ever did in the past.” Previously, the company would put out recall information via newspaper notices, but it now uses social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“If the brand has a Twitter account or Facebook page, we’re putting that information out there because we know there’s so many avenues that people are getting their information from about our products that you can’t just rely on the (Food and Drug Administration) website or the newspaper anymore,” he said.

“You have to really expand how you’re contacting your potential customers.”

Social media also helps sick individuals spread the word without prompting by corporations or governments, which has resulted in increased claims, said Glenn Drees, managing director of food and agribusiness for broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Cincinnati.

For example, 20 years ago, if people went to the same restaurant and got sick, they would not be able to contact each other and it could take weeks to track them all down. Now, someone sickened at a restaurant can go on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to spread the word.

“Social media has really changed the landscape where more claims are being reported,” he said.

But phone calls are still a key tool in contacting consumers, particularly because grocery retailers possess detailed information about customer purchases — often due to discount or loyalty cards — and can quickly identify which customers have bought recalled products, according to experts.

Gillian Kelleher, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Wegmans Food Markets Inc. in Rochester, New York, said the supermarket chain identifies and directly calls customers who have purchased products implicated in recalls.

“They’re very responsive and appreciative of that,” she said. “They feel like you might be pestering them, but by and large it’s a positive thing because we’re trying to get that information to them about that particular product.”

Back in late November, this reporter received a call on her cellphone from Landover, Maryland-based Giant Food L.L.C. after purchasing a hummus product made by Colonial Heights, Virginia-based Sabra Dipping Co. L.L.C. at her local Giant supermarket.

The call informed that Sabra was voluntarily recalling its products due to concerns over listeria monocytogenes found at a manufacturing facility, but not in the tested finished product. The organism can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections for those with weakened immune systems, while even healthy individuals can suffer short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

In early January, the company followed up with a letter apologizing for the recall and providing coupons for free replacement of the products.