Foster Farms reaches out to consumers in full-page ads

The Fresno BeeOctober 29, 2013 

Foster Farms has placed full-page ads in major newspapers throughout the West and is improving its food safety handling practices as it continues to try to win back consumers.

The ads, coupled with new processes, are the latest efforts by the San Joaquin Valley poultry processor to try to bounce back after some of its raw poultry products were linked to a salmonella outbreak that made 338 people sick in 20 states, including 232 in California. Three processing plants were involved — two in Fresno and one in Livingston.

Foster Farms — one of the nation's largest chicken processors — has acknowledged that since the outbreak in early October, sales of its chicken have dropped 25%.

To make amends, company President Ron Foster issued a public apology in the ad that ran in major daily newspapers from San Diego to Seattle. The ad also appeared in Thursday's and Sunday's editions of The Fresno Bee.

In the ad, Foster said: "For nearly 75 years Foster Farms has worked hard to earn your trust, and we know that the recent Salmonella illnesses associated with Foster Farms have shaken that trust. We want to take this opportunity to apologize wholeheartedly."

The ad also reminded consumers that the company has strengthened its food safety programs from the farm to the processing plants.

Experts in public relations and marketing said reaching out to the public through a full-page ad and promising to improve can help limit the long-term damage to the company.

"The word salmonella creates a fear gap among consumers and they pull back," said Bill Rice, a Fresno State marketing professor. "So you have to apologize in the most public way possible. It is like being married, you have to say you are sorry and you have to be honest."

Debra Nalchajian-Cohen, president of Cohen Communications, said consumers want to be reassured that the company is doing everything it can to improve.

"This is an opportunity to use this as a platform to reach out to the public and explain to them that the company is improving quality control at every level," Nalchajian-Cohen said.

Although Foster Farms would not disclose how much it paid for the ads, Ira Brill, director of marketing services at Foster Farms, said the company is not trying to advertise its way out of trouble.

"We wanted to develop a piece of communication that was truthful and that speaks to consumers in an intelligent way," Brill said. "We also want to reassure consumers that our interest is in producing the safest chicken."

Brill said the company has introduced 23 additional processes to reduce the rates of salmonella at the company's processing plants. Also, Foster Farms has been working with the University of California looking at consumers' food safety habits. The goal is to spotlight where consumers can improve the handling of raw chicken.

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis, is analyzing the data that includes videotape of 120 people preparing chicken in their own kitchens.

Bruhn did a similar study in 2010 looking at how people prepare hamburgers. She found: 22% did not cook their burgers to the appropriate temperature; only 4% used a meat thermometer; and less than half washed their hands before cooking.

"One of the key questions is how do we get people to change their behavior to improve their food-handling practices," Bruhn said. "What we want is for people to be aware of the risks and know how to protect themselves."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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