Peanut-Butter Recall Gets Even Uninvolved Marketers Talking

Blameless ConAgra, Hershey Join Kellogg and General Mills in Making Public Statements

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CHICAGO ( -- The first food-safety crisis of 2009 has brought an onslaught of communication from companies involved in recalls -- and also from those who aren't.

Kellogg and General Mills are getting credit for staying ahead of the peanut-butter scare that has much of the country in an uproar over a salmonella outbreak, even though it involves some of their products. But ConAgra and Hershey, who market peanut-butter products not affected by this crisis, are also speaking out, risking guilt by association with a negative news cycle.

Kroger, Clif Bar, Ralcorp, Abbott Nutrition, Meijer and Little Debbie manufacturer McKee Foods, among others, have instituted recalls since the Food and Drug Administration first announced its peanut-butter probe on Jan. 12. The salmonella outbreak, which has claimed several lives and made hundreds of people sick, has since been traced to a plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. The company has sold peanut paste to a number of the nation's largest package-food companies.

Kellogg was the first company to recall products, withdrawing its Keebler and Austin peanut-butter crackers. "The actions we are taking today are in keeping with our more than 100-year commitment to providing consumers with safe, high-quality products," Kellogg President David Mackay said in a statement issued Friday. "We apologize for this unfortunate situation."

Getting caught in the crossfire
ConAgra and Hershey both issued statements Saturday exonerating themselves of salmonella, but simultaneously encircling themselves in the maelstrom. "They're saying 'We're going to tell consumers that we're not involved even if we confuse them'," said crisis-communications expert Robbie Vorhaus, adding that some people may scan newspaper articles on the outbreak and attribute any boldface company names to sickness. (Mr. Vorhaus consults with Russell Stover, another company that also came out to say its products are not affected.)

Just a few years ago, Mr. Vorhaus said, uninvolved parties would have stuck to the sidelines. Now it's more important to get the word out, because consumers are getting their information from a wide variety of sources. "Many of these companies are known for peanut-butter products, and their consumer lines were getting calls anyway," he said. "If you're aware that the news cycle is breaking through an inauguration to get messages to people that they should throw away a product, it makes a lot of sense to say 'we are not involved.'"

Gena Roberts, VP-sales and marketing at the National Food Lab, said that recalls are getting bigger headlines -- despite the increase in frequency -- because they can now be traced back to a single product, processor or processing plant. "This wasn't something they could do ten years ago," she said. "And it's going to be happening more and more.

The increased frequency hasn't impacted consumer concern, at least not yet. According to a Deloitte study, consumer-buying patterns are affected for more than nine months after they hear about safety issues, particularly when it pertains to food or beverages. Of the 1,000 survey respondents, 61% were "extremely concerned" about package-food safety, compared with 46% who had the same feelings about toys.

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