18 Jun 2024

Even in a well-managed company, crises can occur suddenly and unexpectedly. Intertek's UK Food Technical Consultant Heather Hayward recalls a crisis situation and lessons learned.

It’s 4.55pm on a Wednesday afternoon and we’re getting ready to go home for the day. The Quality Manager’s direct phone line is ringing. She goes to answer.  The caller is shouting so loud down the phone that the rest of us in the open plan office could hear every word.

Her child had been eating one of our products and had cut its mouth on a piece of glass. The child could be heard screaming in the background. The woman was angry. Wanted to know what we are going to do about it.

Like a true professional, the Quality Manager apologises and calmly asks for more details – what product was it, the batch code and so on. The woman continues shouting, ignoring the fact-finding questions. After what seemed like an eternity, the customer was advised how to send in the sample and what information we needed. We logged off and headed home.

The following day started normally enough until around 9am. My office window overlooked the goods in yard, and as I walked back from the printer, I saw in the corner of my eye a commotion in the yard. There was a guy I recognised from the local TV news doing a piece to camera in our yard!! Others gathered around the window and looked out. We called our Head office. They also had a camera crew turn up there as well. We urgently called the Managing Director. His phone went straight to voicemail. Finally, the Production Manager went down to speak to them and to ask what they were doing.

“We’re doing a piece on how a young child cut their mouth on a piece of glass from one of your products. Its for the lunchtime news. We must get the piece to the editor by 11.30 latest. Who can we interview?!”  The Quality Manager looked on with an ashen face. That phone call last night…had led to this!! And why wasn’t the Managing Director answering his phone?

We decided to bring them upstairs to the training room and put them in there whilst we tried to work out what to do next. The previous day I’d run a Food Hygiene course for the production staff. The flipcharts were still in there. I made the TV team a cup of tea to buy us some time. Eventually lots were drawn, and the interviewee chosen to go in front of the camera. Another call to the Managing Director. Another voicemail left.

The TV crew left site seemingly happy. They had our side of the story and made their deadline.

Half an hour later the Managing Director called, asking us to attend the Head Office site immediately.

It was then I discovered that the whole event had been a media training exercise organised by the Managing Director. The footage was replayed to us with the journalist’s spin. My training flipcharts had been filmed with a focus on the words ‘Salmonella’ and ‘Bacillus’ from the training…suddenly a story about a glass complaint had escalated into a full food safety horror story with the words used completely out of context. 

We were asked how many of us had looked at the Crisis Management booklet we’d been issued with some 3 months earlier. Not one of us had. In there was a whole section on how to deal with a media issue. We had the tools at our fingertips but hadn’t used it.  

Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the nose

We had been well and truly thumped in both nostrils!!

This exercise took place some 14 years ago, but I still remember it vividly to this day.


A crisis will lead to a media feeding frenzy.  It’s therefore important to control the media, or they will control you.  In any crisis the standard response tends to take the format of “Prayers, Praise, and Promise.”  For example, “I’m sorry to hear that the child was injured, and our thoughts are with him and his family at this time. I’d like to thank the mother for telling us about this, and my team who have worked tirelessly to investigate this issue. I promise we’ll leave no stone unturned in our investigation.” 


Don’t forget internal communications are as important as external. There is nothing worse than members of staff talking directly to the press saying “the first thing we heard about this was when it was on the radio this morning…”

Key tips if you find yourself in a crisis:

  • Don’t panic!
  • Accept what’s happened – this isn’t the time for blame.
  • Work out a plan for both internal and external communications.
  • Keep the language simple and avoid jargon/acronyms.
  • You can’t control the media, but you can manage/influence them.
  • Avoid blaming people.

And don’t get caught out:

  • Does your Crisis Management plan include a process for handling the media?
  • Have you practiced your plan?
  • Have you reviewed it recently to include trends such as social media platforms e.gs Tik Tok?

In the unpredictable world of the food business, a Food Safety Crisis Management Plan serves as your shield against unforeseen challenges, helping you protect your brand and stay prepared ahead of crises that might disrupt your food business operations.

At Intertek we can offer support to businesses in all aspects of their Food Safety and Quality Management systems, including developing a robust crisis management plan to include pre-crisis planning, crisis response, and post-crisis recovery.   

Please get in touch and we’d be happy to help.

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Headshot of Heather Hayward
Heather Hayward

Food Technical Consultant, Intertek UK

With over 20 years food manufacturing experience, Heather draws on her knowledge to support our clients through various projects ranging from supporting smaller suppliers to meet retailers' food manufacturing requirements, updating a specification management system for restaurants and retail outlet allergen audits to gap analysis work, desktop traceability audits and support in generating risk assessments, policies and procedures.

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