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The next time Ben spoke to Teague Ralston was to fire him.
An investigation by the Food and Drug Administration in conjunction with state law enforcement in Utah, California and Virginia concluded that the contaminated cookies referred to in the NPR report had been produced by Ben’s Best.
Amplifying the damage was that the cookies contained the chia seeds the company had purchased on the spot market, which had been processed on machinery that had also processed peanuts.
Teague had found out about the cross-contamination two weeks before the deaths from a former colleague who worked at Robyn’s Fresh.
Ben was on a sailing trip when Teague got the information. Rather than play it absolutely safe, Teague, under marching orders from Ben to protect the top line “no matter what”, had gambled.
Teague reasoned, using data from a flawed ingredient traceability system, that there was a 95 percent chance that only one batch of nut-free cookies had been affected. He recalled that batch and didn’t recall the second. It was the second batch that stayed on shelves and resulted in the deaths.
Making the issue worse was that all the other manufacturers in this space had conducted a full recall when they found out about the cross-contamination issue.
A Salt Lake-based reporter added fuel to the fire by reporting that the contaminated chia seeds were not organic, although permitted to be used in a product labeled organic. The combination of a supposedly nut allergen-free product that caused deaths combined with the fact that the ingredient wasn’t organic to begin with, sent consumers and the aggrieved relatives of the deceased over the edge.
Mothers who strictly watch what their children eat took to Facebook and other social media sites to lash out in anger.
Ben logged onto one of these sites and saw things that made him cringe. One Facebook page, “Ben: ‘Le Grand’ Phony” features a photo of Ben looking smug behind the steering wheel of his sailboat, posted next to links of news stories about the contaminated cookie deaths.
Tears come to Ben’s eyes. To work as hard as he did, making what he believed in his heart were healthy products, good for people and good for the planet, had come to this! The frustration and the unfairness of the whole thing were enough to drive a man mad.
Ben had a corporate communications team, but as events unfolded, it became evident that the team was out-matched.
“The leadership and employee’s of Ben’s Best wish to express our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives,” an e-mailed “Ben’s Best” press release began. “We here at Ben’s Best make every effort to insure the safety and wholesomeness of our products.”
The company posted a similar statement on its website. But the accompanying picture of Julia in her hard hat inspecting the production lines looked canned and was an inadequate image and message to quell the rage people were expressing on social media sites.
Hands down, The “Ben’s Best” corporate communications team had been caught flat-footed by the speed at which the social media attacks came on. The e-mailed press release and the statement on the website were outdated attempts to stem the tide of negative publicity that “Ben’s Best” was suddenly suffering from.
And the social media attacks were just gearing up. Posters on Facebook were calling for boycotts, not only of Ben’s Best cookies but his entire line, his pastas, his breads, everything. Social media attacks were also targeting retailers, demanding that all Ben’s Best products be removed and stores boycott their products. A Twitter hashtag, #bensbestkills, began trending strongly.
The “Ben’s Best” team simply did not have the tools to counter the assault. The company had a crisis response plan, but it had too many holes to be of practical use.
Tens of thousands of boxes of the company’s cookies were pulled off of the shelves and Ben’s large brand customers began cancelling orders for his breads and pastas. Meanwhile, other products he manufactured for them were recalled. The FDA has understandably made all products containing chia seeds used by Ben’s Best subject to a Class I recall.
Not only is the reputation of Ben’s Best at risk, so are those of his private label customers. Ben also knows a phone call from the potential buyers of his company is coming. He just doesn’t know when.
(The Scenario continues on page 3)