The stem of the outbreak
The outbreak, which has so far caused one death and 131 cases of illness, is linked primarily to Natural Selection Foods, a California-based marketer of organic fresh spinach under the Earthbound Farms name and the grower and packager of spinach for a variety of retail brands including Dole, Ready Pac and at least 30 others. As a result of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's advisory for consumers to avoid all fresh spinach or products that contain fresh spinach, Natural Selection has instituted a voluntary recall of its products, virtually clearing the shelves of bagged spinach.
But the FDA is soon expected to shift its advisory, following an investigation that has isolated the E. coli strain to a specific area, and that will allow the sale of spinach grown in nonaffected areas. It is then that United will launch its counter-offensive campaign, a rare move for the organization.
"Our association doesn't typically do ad campaigns, but this would be an exception because of the extent of the damage," said Amy Philpott, VP-marketing and industry relations for United. Although there have been as many as 20 E. coli outbreaks associated with fruit and vegetables over the last decade, United has not in recent history waged a communications campaign that includes developing its own advertising.
Details in development
Ms. Philpott said the type of media and the exact creative for the campaign is still in development, but she said the ad push will have to be extensive to restore consumer confidence in the $300 million fresh-spinach category. The fruit and vegetable industry and its marketers aren't deep-pocketed, but it's crucial that United and its growers get the word out that they're working to make sure an outbreak never happens again.
"The key to recovery for Natural Selection and the industry will be ensuring consumers that their products are safe, and will depend on the degree to which they change their handling methods, incorporate new irrigation systems and respond in general to whatever comes out of the FDA investigation," said Matthew Harrington, president of the Eastern Region of public relations practice Edelman Worldwide, which managed the recall of Odwalla juices back in 1996.
Odwalla, which was charged with criminal negligence and was forced to pay a $1.5 million fine following the death of one child and injury to several others from E. coli poisoning in its apple juice, responded to the crisis by immediately forming an advisory panel of experts to develop response recommendations. That panel's ideas led to the development of a new flash-pasteurization process the company added to labels and promoted in the marketplace, Mr. Harrington said. Natural Selection, he said, would similarly do well to bring in outside authorities to develop and communicate changes to its system.
Juxtaposition of the crisis
Laura Hubrich, marketing manager for the Earthbound Farms brand, said that's exactly what the company is doing, utilizing crisis managers and a variety of vendors "who have come out of the woodwork to help," she said. The juxtaposition of the crisis with the organic company's usual good works in the community and its portfolio of healthful products is stark, she said. Most likely, the brand will use its small media budget -- spent mostly on ads in Cooking Light -- to develop an ad responding to the crisis. Earthbound spent $1.8 million in media during January through June of this year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Dole, which last year suffered a far-smaller E. coli outbreak surrounding its pre-packaged salads, managed to sustain sales by "being upfront, transparent, working with authorities and [due to budgets that rule out paid media] using consumer education -- packages in stores and the internet -- to communicate the safety of our products," said Marty Ordman, VP-marketing and communications for Dole.
Roughly 10% of Dole's packaged-salad sales come from packages that contain spinach. According to Information Resources, Dole's sales of fresh-cut salads in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 13 fell 3.2% to $826 million. Natural Selection's Earthbound Farms sales, meanwhile, grew 23.2% to $160 million.
An opportunity for some
As the spinach industry is readying its efforts, others are looking to capitalize on the crisis. Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash, a former Procter & Gamble brand sold to HealthPro Brands this year, sent out a press release earlier today touting the wash as an important player in the fight against E. coli. According to HealthPro president Todd Wichmann, Fit helps provide the much-needed "kill step" the industry is not currently practicing, removing up to three times more chemicals and residue than washing with water.
But Barbara Ingham, consumer-food-safety specialist at University of Wisconsin, Madison, said research on Fit when it launched in 2000 does not support that statement. As an organic-acid-based product, Fit breaks through the cuticle on the surface of plant tissue and can reduce bacteria and pesticide attached to that layer. But, as with many pesticides and with the current outbreak associated with spinach, there is evidence that the E. coli may be inside the plant, which Fit could not fight against. Fit was discontinued by P&G in 2001 due to lack of sales and brought back by HealthPro, which licensed the brand in 2003 and bought it in May.
Mr. Wichmann maintains that early studies on Fit focused on its effectiveness against pesticides, not against bacteria.