Some of the worst days in my early career were learning to manage amidst crisis. When chaos happens all around you, it’s hard to admit you don’t know what to do if you haven’t experienced it before. You have to learn quickly how to adapt, pivot and decide on a course of action or you will end up in “analysis paralysis” — where you don’t and can’t make a decision.

As quality and food safety professionals, we have to learn to deal with ambiguity. It’s never black or white, it’s much more likely to be shades of grey. One of the hardest calls I had to make was during a major incident early in my career, where the group president needed an answer around midnight, after we had been meeting as a crisis team for 18 hours to try to determine the root cause of a complex case, which would have global implications and a massive financial consequence. I was asked to name the root cause, and we didn’t have all data and had not completed the analysis. I knew the regulation. I knew we were marginally above the specification limit with an ingredient, which would be a technical labeling issue. There was no food safety issue. But it was a new product launch in a new market. My gut feel and reply to the group president was proved later to be correct, but it was a difficult call.

The recent cyber-attacks in the United States should also make us review our crisis management programs. Have you covered all functions and potential risks? These incidents will only increase, with the global media attention and publicity given following the ransom payout. Don’t underestimate the links to our food supply chains.

When managing through a crisis, there are some critical items to consider. Never think you have prepared enough; always expect the unexpected; think of the worst case and best case for each option; have clear internal and external messaging; practice, and practice again; have roles defined, with a backup for every critical role of the crisis team.

All critical functions need a designated person assigned, who represents the function and can make a decision. The inability to decide is a disaster in a crisis. Decision making is critical, even if it’s the wrong decision. In a crisis, it’s often better to make the wrong decision and move on, rather than making no decision. Speed is critical in a crisis. Sometimes two hours is a lifetime. Data and the need for clear information is essential, particularly for product traceability, batch codes, ingredient test results and customer locations. Incidents invariably happen at 4 p.m. on a Friday, or a holiday weekend.

It may be cliched, but preparation is key. The following are some things that should always be considered by a crisis management team.

  • Internal versus external focus: Both are important and need addressing. Pressure increases tremendously if you have to contact the regulatory authority.
  • Management of the senior management: Don’t underestimate the need to align the messaging.
  • Crisis mitigation and containment of the issue: Determine the size of the issue and plan to contain it as quickly as possible.
  • Recall planning and traceability: Once you have convened the crisis team, be ready to take action. Identifying the issue and planning to recall from internal warehousing, customer distribution, customer retail and consumers (in worse case scenarios).
  • Training practice and simulation: Simulation is a brilliant tool to put people into pressure situations. Simulation and practicing regularly is the best-in-class approach.
  • Know your role: Clarify everyone’s roles and map out who is responsible, accountable, supporting, consulted and informed (RASCI).
  • Crisis team: Your crisis teams should be separated from your operational team.
  • Communicate: You can never communicate enough. Try to own the story.

Also, you should have an enterprise risk management (ERM) program. The ERM programs should capture all functions including finance, information technology, human resources, marketing, legal, quality and food safety, occupational and environmental safety and regulatory concerns and connect them to the board room.

Considering we have all lived through the extraordinary times of the pandemic, it’s surprising that we haven’t had more recalls and crisis with our food supply. Have we been lucky or are we in for more issues once we return to normality?

The only thing that’s more certain than the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, is we will all experience a major crisis during our working lifetime. How you manage it directly relates to how you prepare and practice. Good crisis management happens by design, not by chance or luck. To borrow a couple phrases: Practice makes perfect if you keep it simple stupid.