In the midst of the Taco Bell/E.coli 0157:H7 situation we published Taco Bell’s PR Fiasco, which pointed out that Taco Bell had unfairly released preliminary information because of its own interest in seeing the situation resolved. This is part of what we wrote:
The key to the Johnson & Johnson campaign, though, was to first clear the decks by recalling everything and then, having identified and fixed the problem, come back to market with a new triple-sealed Tylenol.
The plan is now standard and Taco Bell was in a sense trying to do the same thing: They closed implicated restaurants, threw out all the food, sanitized them and then were ready to do business again.
In this case, however, the translation from the Tylenol incident to food was difficult. The Tylenol method depends, crucially, on being able to identify and solve the problem.
So what Taco Bell executives wanted was for something… anything… to be identified as the “cause” of the problem so that the problem could be “fixed.”
To publicize two separate presumptive positives would keep doubt alive in the mind of the consumer, so the decision was made to announce the green onion presumptive positive and squash the chili pepper presumptive positive.
The truth is that most food safety experts were aghast at Taco Bell’s decision to release the presumptive results at all. One put it this way:
“Taco Bell made public the results of its presumptive E coli testing. Such tests are known to frequently result in false positives. Taco Bell consciously made this decision without regard for confirmatory testing in the works by FDA. This premature release of misleading data and subsequent premature incrimination of a particular food item, green onions, formed the basis for the Taco Bell statements about the safety of operations that I and others have pointed out.
Until the food item that served as the vehicle for E coli is identified, Taco Bell cannot rightfully claim the outbreak is over. You know Taco Bell has some pretty sharp food safety people, I have worked with them…. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions leading up to the release of the presumptive positive results.”
After announcing the presumptive positive on green onions, Taco Bell removed them from their restaurants. The obvious implication: Like Tylenol’s triple-seal cap, Taco Bell wanted its customers to believe that the removal of green onions was a corrective action to the problem.
In effect, of course, this indicated that Taco Bell was willing to throw the grower of its Green Onions to the wind, to save its own skin. This is not really surprising since Taco Bell dumped Ready Pac, its actual direct supplier, for no reason at all — just a hope that it could intimate that other people were responsible for the Taco Bell problem.
Now the LA Times is reporting that Boskovich Farms is suing Taco Bell. As Boskovich’s attorney Thomas Girardi explains:
“Taco Bell engaged in an irresponsible and intentional crusade to save its own brand at the expense of an innocent supplier.”
Which is certainly the way it seems. Taco Bell claims it was just releasing all the information it had, but it did not release the presumptive positive on chili pepper.
The most reasonable explanation, as we wrote back in December, is that Taco Bell desperately wanted to get the situation behind it and, to do so, it needed a simple “cause” of the problem.
An easily expendable item, green onions fit the bill. Boskovich paid a big price and now Taco Bell should pay up to compensate for the harm caused by its irresponsible and self-serving actions.