The Good Food Chain – what lessons have been learned?

The Good Food Chain – what lessons have been learned?

Despite no finding of wrongdoing in connection with the recent listeria outbreak in NHS hospitals in England that allegedly resulted in the tragic deaths of nine people, The Good Food Chain has announced that it has ceased trading and will be going into liquidation. The company voluntarily suspended production pending the outcome of the FSA-led investigation into the cause of the untimely deaths. The FSA has recently announced that The Good Food Chain is no longer under investigation. Whilst the investigation remains ongoing, it has turned its attention to a third party supplier.
Describing how the temporary suspension ultimately put The Good Food Chain out of business and resulted in 125 people losing their jobs, the company founder said that whilst the he welcomed the announcement from the FSA, “it ultimately came too late in the day for [The Good Food Chain] to get the business back on to a sustainable footing”.

Agencies tasked with ensuring the health and safety of the public are under an obligation to thoroughly investigate threats to public health. Without a doubt, the moment a hazardous situation emerges, the immediate objective of the FSA and other public bodies is to find the source of the harm and contain the threat. Understandably, when public health is at stake, the prospect of reputational damage falls far down the list of priorities.

Whilst culpable organisations will correctly be held to account and be expected to submit to the consequences of whatever actions or omissions are uncovered by an investigation, in circumstances where an organisation is ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, is liquidation an inevitable outcome or can steps be taken to mitigate the collateral damage that will likely ensue as a result?
The Good Food Company appears to have complied fully with the investigation and voluntarily ceased trading on 5 June, shortly after news of the outbreak came to light. No detailed findings have been released although to all extents and purposes there seems to have been full transparency insofar as the company’s cooperation with the investigation was concerned.
Fully cooperating with the investigating agency is key. Crucially, however any reactive approach should be combined with a proactive level of awareness on the part of the company under investigation. So what pre-emptive steps can a company take to mitigate harm caused by third party investigations which are more often than not accompanied with intense media scrutiny?

• Create and maintain a corporate risk register: the use of risk registers is becoming more widespread and is gradually being adopted by more and more businesses in pursuit of healthy corporate governance. The threats facing individual businesses will be distinct although several blanket fundamentals should typically be included, such as the use of ethical suppliers and ensuring that health and safety policies are not only in place but are also maintained regularly. Risk registers do not need to be scary and there are an increasing number of apps on the market which help organisations and their Board of Directors to actively observe good practice (such as The purpose of a risk register is to identify potential issues before they turn into problems

• Have a social media policy in place: while the culture of an organisation will of course massively influence its employee’s online comments, company handbooks need to encourage staff to consider the consequences of work-related musings before they post them on social media
• Get help to proactively engage with the media: PR companies can help to ensure that the company’s message is not drowned out by the clamouring negativity that often follows in the wake of revelations. Specialist media lawyers can also eliminate the distortion of facts, keep a lid on premature finger pointing and contain the dissemination of false and defamatory allegations
• Do not ignore warnings: given the myriad tasks facing businesses on a day to day basis it is tempting to do nothing when faced with potential threats in the hope that they never amount to anything. More often than not some cursory corrective action will prevent the threat becoming anything more than just that although left unchecked things can often move from bad to worse – at speed
• Avoid using the “no comment” response to queries from the press or interested parties: if your information is not complete then by all means make that clear although blanket refusals to engage may be counter-productive and can tend to imply culpability.

Of course no two scenarios are ever the same and any public comments will need to be tailored to specific circumstances in order to ensure that the right message is accurately reflected.
As to whether The Good Food Chain could have done anything differently to guard against being forced to permanently shut its doors and see its loyal employees losing their jobs, we are presumably not likely to know and nor is it possible to apportion blame in the absence of the full investigative findings.

The question of “what if” is hypothetical and the answer no doubt nebulous. What is undeniably clear, however, is that whilst lawyers and PR experts can help companies navigate their way out of a storm, they are more likely to succeed when businesses have given thorough consideration to likely issues before they find themselves in the middle of one.

Kathy Mathews
Senior Associate
Forde Campbell LLC