Top strategies for navigating natural product recalls

Top strategies for navigating natural product recalls

How should your brand respond to a recall, such as Sunland's peanut butter fiasco, in order to maintain trust with customers? Natural companies share their strategies.

When Trader Joe's recalled its Valencia peanut butter last month after the product was linked with salmonella infections in more than a dozen states, no other brands were involved and it looked like a manageable problem.

Over the next two weeks, the recall would expand to other peanut butter brands manufactured by Sunland Inc.—the company that made the Trader Joe's product—then to other nut butters, and then to all sorts of products simply containing peanut butter, from granola bars to ice cream. By October 10, Sunland was recalling all products manufactured at the plant since March 1, 2010.

That meant a whole lot of peanut butter. Natural companies affected include Arrowhead Mills, Newman's Own Organics, Late July Organic Snacks, Justin's Nut Butter, Earth Balance, Luna & Larry's, Cascadian Farm and Sprouts Farmers Market, though the impacts to each vary widely. Some, like Late July, recalled one product each, while others, like Justin's, recalled several items off their main product lines.

For brands that work to build trust among their customers—something natural brands in particular tend to do—how do you deal with a recall and manage to maintain that level of trust?

Maintaining trust with customers

Communication, communication, communication. Brands should be clear and forthcoming with customers about what's going on.  

"You make sure customers have found out," said Newman's Own Organics co-founder and CEO Peter Meehan. "Communicate with them and you reimburse them if they've had a problem. And you behave in the same way you would want to be treated if you were a customer."

Not only does that streamline the process, but it can help build trust in the long run.

"We received very positive feedback from a lot of our consumers thanking us for letting them know, taking a stand and being responsible about it," said Adriane Little, marketing manager for Earth Balance, who ran off a list of ways the company reached out, including Facebook, Twitter and its website and online community,

Communication is important even for brands that may appear to be affected by the recall but aren't. Once Again Nut Butter, which manufactures its own products, contacted consumers directly, as well as distributors and retailers, to let them know its products were safe, said the company's communications manager Gael Orr. That helps protect the brand and sales, but also helps retailers—who can be just as confused as customers about what is and isn't safe—be better equipped to answer their own customers' questions.

For that reason, companies also need to be careful not to reintroduce a recalled product too soon; a store clerk might not realize products are from a newer batch and pull them from the shelves unnecessarily.

Preventing future recalls

Looking ahead, the best thing for a company to do is simply be aggressive with its suppliers. The Sunland recall took natural companies by surprise. "If I wasn't [surprised], I wouldn't have been getting peanut butter from Sunland," Meehan said. "They had been a good supplier up until that point. In this business, you're very good until you aren't."

So the bottom line revolves around a company's diligence in demanding high standards from its suppliers and in being prepared for emergencies. "Can you control things and get the product back if there is a problem?" Meehan said.

Jake Rawleigh, Once Again's quality assurance manager, said if working with an external supplier, in addition to strong policies and documentation, he'd get an independent source to test each batch of products before they're sent out for distribution.

Extra testing may be costly, but Rawleigh finds it crucial—for the safety of customers and for the health of the industry overall. "The aftermath doesn't only affect that company, but everybody," he said.

When to contact the FDA

Meehan also singled out the FDA as surprisingly helpful, according to his employees, in navigating this recall. They contacted the agency just to make sure they were taking the necessary steps, and Meehan advises companies facing future recalls to do the same.

"It's kind of like having a fire extinguisher in your office. You still want to call the fire department if you have a fire," he said.

The specific cause of the contamination at Sunland is still being investigated. Newman's Own Organics, Earth Balance, and likely others are looking at alternative suppliers while they wait to hear exactly what happened.

It's too soon for them to decide whether they will stick with Sunland or move their business elsewhere. That's one challenge for organic companies: There tend to be fewer organic suppliers than conventional ones.

On the bright side, when a company deals with a recall effectively, it shouldn't affect the other parts of its business. For Newman's Own Organics, said Meehan, "The most common comment was, 'Does this mean my favorite cookie isn't going to be available?'"

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