The Dreaded Product RecallJanuary 28, 2009
Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.
I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.
Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.
Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?
Photo credit: Enrico Corno