Thursday, March 4, 2010

Killer Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein

The FDA announced a recall today of products containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) manufactured by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. due to possible salmonella contamination.  There have been no reports of injury or illness, but contamination at the plant has understandably caused concern.

If you are like me, you have some questions at this point.  The most obvious is probably, "What on earth is hydrolyzed vegetable protein?"  You may also wonder what it's in, and in particular what products contain HVP from this manufacturer.  It is these questions that pose an interesting crisis communication issue for the FDA.

As it turns out, HVP is a food additive used in processed foods as a flavor enhancer.  Therefore, the answer to the question of what foods contain it is basically everything, or at least most processed foods may contain it.  As for which products contain HVP from this manufacturer, the answer may disturb you:  nobody's sure.  Once it is manufactured, it is sold to distributors, wholesalers and manufacturers who then either use it or resell it again.  It's not that we can't find out what it's in, it's just that right now we don't know.

The FDA, then, was faced with a dilemma that is fairly common during the throes of a crisis.  They have some information but not complete information.  They have a difficult choice to make -- they can wait until they have complete information before issuing the recall, they can issue a recall based on the information they have and call it complete and only later acknowledge that it wasn't, or they can issue the recall with incomplete information, acknowledge that it's incomplete up front, and update it as they go.

You would be amazed how many organizations, when faced with this situation, pick one of the first two choices.  They either sit on the information they have because they're not ready to release it, or they act as though they are certain of things they are not certain of.  Later, when the whole story comes out, they are surprised when people are angry or distrusting. 

A good example of this is when there is a violent incident at a school.  Schools often don't talk to the press or to parents at all because they aren't sure, for example, how many casualties there are.  Alternately, they state with authority that there are a certain number of victims, and later have to admit that they were wrong.  Parents feel they mishandled the crisis, but in reality they may just have mishandled the information.

The FDA, in my humble opinion, has made the correct choice.  If you visit the recall page, you will see the following statement:

This list includes products subject to recall in the United States since February 2010 related to hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) paste and powder distributed by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. This list will be updated with publicly available information as received. The information is current as of the date indicated. Once included, recalls will remain listed. If we learn that any information is not accurate, we will revise the list as soon as possible. When available, this database also includes photos of recalled products that have been voluntarily submitted by recalling firms to the FDA to assist the public in identifying those products that are subject to recall.

In other words, "this is what we know so far.  It's not everything, and we'll update the information as soon as we can."

Organizations are often worried that statements like this show weakness because they show what they don't know.  I disagree.  Sharing what you do know and acknowledging what you don't is actually a very effective tool for building trust in a crisis situation.  People hearing or reading something like this feel reassured that the organization is sharing as much as it can and trying to be as accurate as possible, and that they will be told whatever is known whenever it is known.  For an organization to engender that kind of trust, whether it's about a shooting or a food additive, is a tremendous strength.


Anonymous said...

I noticed that you switched back and forth between HVP (which is the killer protein you're talking about) and HPV, which is a genital virus. Guilt by association?

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Well that's embarrassing (and pretty funny). I've fixed it. Thanks for the heads up.

What do you think it means that no one else noticed this in the 5 days the post has been up?

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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