Hepatitis scare shows how crises don’t need facts

When five cases of Hepatitis ‘A’ in Australia were “linked” to eating frozen berries from China, it started a chain of events which reinforce that facts are not necessarily needed to generate a crisis.

Despite no tests showing the berries were at fault, the importer – Patties Foods – immediately announced a voluntary, precautionary recall of Nanna’s Mixed Frozen Berries, soon followed by two other product lines from the same producer.

Predictably, the word “precautionary” was quickly forgotten and a nationwide panic developed as more cases were reported. (The total soon rose to 21, compared to an average of 200-300 cases of Hepatitis A in Australia in any given year). Scores of schools and other institutions rushed to take frozen berries off the menu, and the Red Cross Blood Service temporarily banned donations from people who had eaten the berries. Investors shunned Patties Foods, and their shares fell by almost 8% in a day, slicing about $14 million off the company’s value.

As panic spread, the link to frozen berries quickly became a fact as far as the news media were concerned. They published unqualified statements that the berries had caused the outbreak, enthusiastically aided and abetted by a conga-line of “experts” who stepped forward to speculate about sanitary conditions in Chinese factories. In the blink of an eye, Australian berry-growers were saying the crisis demonstrated that consumers should “buy local” in order to be safe, and vulture lawyers were touting for a class action law suit.

Meantime, politicians of all stripes jumped in front of the camera to attack supposedly poor standards of “country of origin” labelling.  When the Prime Minster eventually pledged to change “country of origin” labelling requirements at least one news outlet illustrated the story with a picture of the “suspect” berries.  Never mind the fact that the package in question was unambiguously labelled “Product of China.”

Ten days into the crisis a Health Department update reiterated that “The source of the hepatitis A virus is still unconfirmed.” But a newswire report of the statement omitted that crucial sentence and their version was widely published around the country.

At the time of writing, officials and the company were still saying there is no proven link between the berries and Hepatitis A.  But sadly it doesn’t matter. Outrage and emotion – not to mention political opportunism and xenophobia – are powerful elements in any crisis. That is a key lesson from this health scare, and the broader food industry will pay.

At some point in the future, tests may or may not prove that frozen berries were the cause of a handful of cases of Hepatitis A in February 2015. Yet history and public perception will always remember this as the “Chinese contaminated berry crisis.”



About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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