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Social Media in a Crisis – a Look at Sabra Hummus and Listeria

In April of 2015, Sabra Hummus faced a social media and public health crisis. Some tests for hummus flavors contained the listeria bacterium.

What is Listeria? Why is it such a Problem?

Per FoodSafety.gov,

Listeria is the name of a bacteria found in soil and water and some animals, including poultry and cattle. It can be present in raw milk and foods made from raw milk. It can also live in food processing plants and contaminate a variety of processed meats.

Listeria is unlike many other germs because it can grow even in the cold temperature of the refrigerator. Listeria is killed by cooking and pasteurization.

Complicating matters is that listeria ingestion can sometimes be fatal, or can induce miscarriages. Beyond just threatening the Sabra Dipping Company, hesitation, quite literally, could prove fatal.

Sabra’s Response

Per Sabra, “The potential for contamination was discovered when a routine, random sample collected at a retail location on March 30th, 2015 by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.”

Before anyone was sickened, Sabra acted quickly and pulled potentially contaminated product from store shelves.

On their blog, Sabra announced the recall and provided a list of potential symptoms, so customers could judge for themselves whether they needed medical treatment.

This included a list of UPC/SKU numbers and names of affected flavors, so customers could know if they’d bought a container. Sabra posted use by dates on the list in English and French, although the blog post was just in English. Neither the post nor the list had a Spanish translation.

Twitter War

As tweets poured in, Sabra’s community manager seemed overwhelmed. Finally, it was suggested that concerned customers contact their doctors

Any concerns or questions you have about your health are best discussed with a physician.

Further, sometimes the provided information was flat-out wrong. For example, the company’s blog listed the dual classic and garlic hummus product, whereas this typical tweet implied that listeria only affected the classic flavor. Mixing would imply that in the dual package, the garlic half would potentially also have contamination.

Hi Kate, only our Classic Hummus is affected by this recall. No other product manufactured by Sabra is included.

But Then…

The community manager insisted that only classic was affected even when a customer said that she had had a reaction to the garlic flavor. Later, the community manager had a change of heart and told the customer to report her case directly to Sabra’s customer service team.

Suzanne Willett ‏Apr 9
Sabra I had a fairly immediate GI reaction to the Roasted Garlic one yesterday. Advise?

SabraApr 9
SuzanneWillett Hi Suzanne, only our Classic Hummus has been affected in the recall.

Sabra Apr 9
SuzanneWillett However, please report your case immediately to our customer service team by calling 1-888-957-2272.

How the Brand Did

Sabra acted perfectly to quickly remove product from stores. This was not a direct social media response. However, it not only potentially saved lives, it also made the community manager’s job far easier. Consumer deaths were not a part of the equation. Offline behavior directly affected online behavior.

For a company in crisis, it seems the CEO did not publicly respond. The blog post is an author-less press release. Twitter didn’t point to anything the CEO had said. Without an authority figure behind the social media response, Twitter offers the impression that the community manager had no support. Perhaps management left them to twist in the wind.

Sabra Hummus on Facebook

The same was true on Facebook. There was just one post about the crisis. A comment from the husband of a pregnant woman elicited the same rote response, suggesting calling a doctor. Other customers called out Sabra, demanding better answers and compensation –

Christine Schaefer
That’s a really weak answer Sabra. Of course a person who ate your contaminated product should follow up with their doctor, but what are YOU going to do about it? How are YOU going to support and compensate anyone who has been affected or has been frightened by eating one of your recalled products?

As for their blog, Sabra could have spread the link more widely. Part of the list had a French translation. Hence there should have been a translation into both French and Spanish for the list and the blog post.

It’s as if Sabra did fine to start but then stumbled. They seem to have recovered, though, and are back to posting recipes now, much later.

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