May 2013.

And as closing to the article “The importance of communicating well when things go badly. Three cases of food crisis”, I leave the third case:


On 26 May 2011 the German Government informed the European Commission and the remaining member states that they had found that organic cucumbers from the Andalusian provinces of Almería and Malaga were “one of the sources” of the outbreak of the ‘Escherichia coli’ intestinal bacteria affecting the north of the country, and pointed to two Andalusian distributors as the specific origin.

Although one of the accused co-operatives defended itself by saying that the load had been altered in Hamburg because it fell on the ground, and the Spanish Ministry of Health assured that there had been no cases in Spain, the seed of doubt was sown.

The truth is that the accusation against Spain came in a very unusual and rigorous process.  The first alert was given by Senator in Hamburg at a press conference before journalists, instead of following the official process which is to inform the German Ministry of Health and through this to reach the European food alert network.  A whole day passed before the accusation against Spain reached the official channels.

This meant that throughout the day the Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine Medium and the Ministry of Health remained silent waiting for official confirmation.  Meanwhile, the Spanish farmers showed their displeasure at the damage done to the image of the sector by “unconfirmed accusations”, and the consequent harm done to their exports.

Just a week later, Brussels lifted the health alert and it was demonstrated their Spanish cucumbers had nothing to do with the intoxication, but the damage had already been done.  It was shown that the intoxication was due to a few germinated soya shoots.  By that time, as an unfortunate result of the E.coli contamination, around twenty deaths had occurred in Germany.

Forty-eight hours after the Senator’s press conference in Hamburg, the ICEX had a detailed emergency plan drawn up by agr! which was never carried out but was prevented by bureaucracy, which makes us think that neither the Spanish official authorities nor the sector have anything prepared in the way of media action whenever there is a crisis, something which will happen again: what to do, who, how, when, etc.

Meanwhile, many voices condemned the management of the crisis by the German authorities, by the Senator from Hamburg, by the German Minister of Agriculture and by the European authorities, but the losses estimated by FEPEX at 200 million Euros a week went on in the weeks following the declaration of the innocence of the cucumbers from Almería, with a 23.5% fall in the value of exports in the following July with respect to the same month in 2011. How much would it have cost to create a solid, distinct and safe image for Spanish fruit products in Europe over 10 years?

250,000 farms stopped their activity and a large part of the 9M metric tons that Spain exported each year resisted, 25% of which are intended for Germany, the second largest importer of Spanish fruit and vegetable products in 2010. Exports of these goods amount to €2,325 million, and cucumber specifically supposed €372 million. It was precisely the cucumber that was the third most widely exported vegetable in Spain in 2010 with 449,354 metric tons, of which 142,772, were imported by Germany.

In this case and by way of curiosity, for our proposal has not gone beyond the drawing board, we suggested acting in two rounds: urgently to control the on-line information on the Internet and to send all of the newspapers a note from all of our Publicis-Dialog collaborating offices in Europe denying the official nature and truth of the report. Another report directed by me, on the basis of which the Spanish fruit and vegetable sector is the main supplier of the principal supermarkets and food shops in Europe, which are the most demanding in the world with regard to quality, safety and traceability; I suggested taking advantage of the crisis (the large media attention drawn to the Spanish fruit and vegetable sector would not likely be repeated) to turn the tables on the situation and place Spanish fruit and vegetable products in the minds of European consumers as the safest, with respect to those of other countries.  This is something I suggested in the medium term with a suitable communication campaign.  The cost of these “opportunity taking” campaigns is ridiculous in comparison with the value they bring in.


Conclusions and recommendations:

  • First: seeing the past, the first conclusion is that “it will happen again”; in which country, with which products, for which reason is not known, but it can happen.
  • Second: we have to be prepared in the public administrations and in the sector: how to act, who, who coordinates, where the funds come from, how it is reported, etc…all of these aspects need experts…
  • Third: I recommend having professionals of communication with specialists from the outset and not only on the preventive level when crises occur, therefore my final recommendation is…
  • Fourth: to create a cushion of reputation. To constantly be present in the international media but not in any old way, but rather with a clear positioning appropriate for the product level and country. This work is still to be done and the next crisis is on its way…