Honesty could be vital for recovery

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Just an hour after finishing off a can of Castleberry's brand chili, Ann Sanford heard the news that the company was recalling several products because of a botulism scare.

Castleberry's Food Co. in Augusta has been shut down after recalling 90 products that could be tainted with botulism.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Castleberry's Food Co. in Augusta has been shut down after recalling 90 products that could be tainted with botulism.

Now, more than a week later, the Augusta resident says she is fine. Despite her brief panic, she's not swearing off the company's products.

"I really feel sorry for them," said Ms. Sanford, who occasionally buys the chili or beef stew.

Customers such as Ms. Sanford will be crucial to the recovery of Castleberry's Food Co., which is still in the midst of a recall of more than 90 products made in its Augusta plant.

Dave Melbourne, the senior vice president of Castleberry's, said it's not clear when the plant will reopen.

The plant might be linked to four botulism cases in Texas and Indiana, where all four people ate the hot dog chili. Federal inspectors also found botulism in 16 cans of hot dog chili at the company's 15th Street cannery.

Though the fallout will damage Castleberry's reputation, the more than 80-year-old company probably will weather the storm so long as it remains open and honest about the problem, experts say.

"Being forthright about what happened and addressing it quickly is the key," said Ken Gaebler, a consultant who specializes in crisis management at Chicago-based Walker Sands Communications.

"Any perception that the executive team is not being forthcoming, that there's something they're not sharing ... that leaves a bad impression," he said.

Honesty has helped brands such as Tylenol, which was hit twice in the 1980s when someone poisoned its medicine with cyanide; and Jack in the Box, which dealt with an E. coli outbreak in the early 1990s.

No matter the outcome, it will certainly be costly for the company, as much as $60 million, according to Jenny Scott, the vice president for food safety programs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Her estimate is based on recent recalls, such as Peter Pan peanut butter and Cadbury Schweppes candies, both of which were found to be tainted with salmonella.

Then there's the issue of litigation.

"When there are illnesses, there are lawsuits," Ms. Scott said. "It's hard to say how much that will cost."

Mr. Melbourne said the company has not calculated the cost of shutting down the plant or recalling its canned goods while it investigates the source of botulism at the plant. The products from the line represent 3 to 4 percent of annual sales for Connors Bros. Income Fund, which owns majority positions in Bumble Bee, which owns Castleberry's.

The recall includes products stretching back two years. Federal officials last week estimated the number of recalled cans at tens of millions.

The plant remains shuttered until officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture give it the green light to reopen.

Showing support for the more than 450 employees, who are left to draw unemployment while the plant is closed, would go a long way toward helping the company's image at the local level, Mr. Gaebler said.

If the plant closing were to extend, Castleberry's ought to find a way to compensate them to maintain employee loyalty, he said.

Mr. Melbourne said some employees are working at the plant to assist with the recall, though he wasn't sure how many.

Helping employees also would help the community, because lower pay while the plant is shut can have a ripple effect, said Barbara Coleman, a professor of marketing at Augusta State University.

In an age with one food recall after another, people are likely to forget about the whole thing in the next several months, Mr. Gaebler said.

It will probably take Castleberry's a few years to financially recover as it spends extra money on the recall and advertising to assure customers that the problem has been fixed, said Lynn Zoch, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina's journalism school with a background in crisis public relations.

"There are always people you're going to lose for good," she said. "What you need to focus on are your hard-core customers" and show them what you've done to improve your safety standards and make things better.

Meanwhile, the company and federal regulators continue to investigate what went wrong.

Mr. Melbourne said the company is still focusing on the April 30 through May 22 period, when a piece of broken equipment might have caused problems in the heating process.

Castleberry's, the FDA and the USDA have advised anyone with the recalled products, no matter the date, to doublebag and discard the products immediately.

The company has hired an outside firm to expand its search of stores shelves from 8,000 to more than 17,000 stores to make sure no more recalled products remain in circulation, especially in smaller shops, Mr. Melbourne said.

Some customers such as Lincoln County resident Gus Graham, who had several cans of Castleberry's food on his shelves, are a little more leery and aren't taking any chances.

"It would be my luck to have dinner one night and not wake up the next day," Mr. Graham said.

Even so, he might give the company a second chance.

"If I don't hear of anyone else grabbing their stomach, I might be persuaded to buy again," Mr. Graham said.

Reach Laura Youngs at (706) 823-3227 or laura.youngs@augustachronicle.com.

CONTACT

If you have any questions about the recall, go to www.castleberrys.com or call (800) 203-4412.

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iletuknow
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iletuknow 07/29/07 - 06:22 pm
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If they were honest nobody

If they were honest nobody would buy their products. If they "cleaned up their act" they couldn't compete.

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