Friday, October 12, 2007

If a rat head is "rendered commercially sterile," does that mean it's OK to eat if you find it in your green beans?

It is always instructive to see how a company responds when they're in the negative news.

Earlier this year, Bigelow Tea did an excellent job using their web site and blog to communicate to their customers during the Don Imus flap. (Bigelow had been a sponsor of Imus' show, before it went down in inglory for his untoward comments on the Rutgers University women's basketball team.)

So, I wondered just how Allen Canning was doing in response to one of its customers finding a rat head in a can of green beans.

Not so good, I'm afraid.

First, they offered her $100 as a "gesture of good will" if she signed a liability waiver.

Now, I don't know about you, but if I found a rat head in a can of green beans, I think I'd be looking for a little more than a hundred bucks. Who knows what the going rate is, but it's got to be more than that - even if it was just the head.

Allen Canning is country folk - they're located in Siloam, Arkansas, in the Ozarks. So maybe the odd rat head in the green beans isn't that big a deal. I'm guessing that Siloam may be hunting country. Maybe even squirrel hunting country. People eat squirrel (which, no doubt tastes like chicken). A squirrel is a rodent. A rat is a rodent. Thus....

Or maybe Allen just likes to low-ball. Apparently when Marianne Watson found an "amphibian leg" in green beans, she was offered $25 and a cookbook. (It's unknown whether the cookbook had recipes for frog's legs, or rat-head stew. Who knows? Maybe the head is the best part.)

Not that there are a lot of ways to make this better, but the Allen spokesperson made things worse.

"There's no way that product could have hurt her," Allen Canning spokesman James Phillips said in a telephone interview. "This rodent was rendered commercially sterile. We cook each can individually at a temperature up to 265 degrees"...

Phillips says that the incident is rare and that the company produces millions of cans a year.

"If you would calculate the frequency of this on a calculator, it wouldn't fit because the number's so small," said Phillips.

All this may be true - and oh, what a relief it is - but Allen Canning may have been better served if they'd offered a bit more 'we hate when this happens, but here's why a) there was no danger, and b) it rarely happens.

However awkward the above  factoids were, they were no near as off the mark as Phillips insisting that Allen Canning is the victim here, not Marianne Watson.

"You can be assured that the people who've been hurt by this is us. She's trying to ruin us through the media."

No doubt Allen Canning has been hurt, but it doesn't appear that Marianne Watson has any particular motivation to "ruin" them. (She claims that she doesn't intend to sue for damages, but that she went public so that no one else would find a rat head - or the remaining, unaccounted for parts - when they went to put supper on the table.)

But who knows? Maybe Allen Canning smells a rat here. They have asked Watson to send the head to a lab for testing - presumably to figure out whether the rat head was actually canned, and not an ingredient added after the fact by a fortune-hunter. After all, wasn't there a story a while back of some woman claiming to find a finger in a taco, only to find that she's put the finger there herself so she could sue for big bucks? I can't remember where the finger came from.)

Watson may send the rat head in - but to a lab of her own choosing. She's in Utah. Maybe she could send it to CSI: Las Vegas, and they can figure out whether the rat had actually been cooked at the requisite 265 degrees. (And just in case I ever need to cook a rat head, are we talking Centigrade or Fahrenheit?)

Allen Canning's web site doesn't do a much better job than their spokesman. When I looked, there was no mention of the incident, just this unfortunate content on their News page:

Wondering what kind of news we’ve got in the can?
Click on the links below to find out!

In this day and age, when everything is "news" within a few minutes, it's crazy for a company to respond (and not respond) this way. Something that, a few years ago, could have been shoved (or vomited) under the table, makes its way to everyone with Internet access. And that's a lot of folks who are going to think twice before they open a can of Veg-All, or Popeye's spinach - both Allen products - let alone a can of green beans.

This may be unfortunate, but this is The Information Age. Even a small, out-of-the-way company like Allen Canning - especially a company like Allen Canning, which is in just the type of industry where everyone who's ever wielded a can opener will identify with the story - needs to be better prepared for this type of incident.

Just as every company needs a business continuity plan, they need a "how we'll respond" plan. Obviously, nobody can anticipate every bad thing that could possibly happen - darn, we were all prepared for another amphibian leg, and instead we get a rat head - they can and should have a checklist ready - not just who will respond, but how they'll respond.

No to blame the victim/we're the victim. No this "product can't hurt" - sure, you may not die from eating it, but I'm having nightmares about it, and I imagine Marianne Watson may be too.

Yes to providing assurances and facts (which Allen Canning did). Yes to pushing for testing - it's certainly understandable in an era a false and attention getting claims, let alone specious lawsuits. And yes to combing your web site, ads, etc. for a LOL howler like "Wondering what kind of news we've got in the can?"

Obviously, the answer to that particular question can only be 'not any longer.'


Information/quotes used in this post comes from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.

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