News - June 9, 2010

Fake crisis gives students a restless night

Student Jo-Ann Parabirsing only got five hours sleep the first night after the food safety crisis broke out. Late at night, the emails and phone calls from worried consumers and organizations were still coming.

The fake CNN website
Monday started for Jo-Ann and her fellow-students on the MSc in Food Safety with the message that raised levels of radioactivity had been detected in baby food. The news struck panic into Jo-Ann's group, which represented the Dutch government. The other three groups were representing a consumer organization, the dairy companies and the meat industry.
The crisis was soon reported on the - simulated - CNN homepage, and the press were asking questions about the dangers for public health. The consumer organization talked of 'possible dangers' and a dairy consortium spokesperson mentioned a risk of cancer. 'But only in the long term', added the student reassuringly.
In the afternoon the government group decided to withdraw the suspect baby food from the shelves. Meanwhile, however, it had become clear that the radioactivity came from cream and ham from the Ukraine. The ham was in frozen pizzas and was also sold pre-packed in supermarkets.
After a bad night, there was heated discussion the next day:  Should the products be recalled? Just as the group was about to reach an agreement, it was announced that the crisis had miraculously ended. A pity, think the students. 'It was just starting to be fun, we were just getting an overview', says Marieke Pen.

Keeping a cool head is the key to crisis management, thinks Jo-Ann. 'This is a good exercise to learn not to let yourself be put under pressure.' She had trouble sleeping that night though. 'We kept in touch on Facebook and by email. I was so excited, I wanted to take action.' Fellow-student Kleanthis Fytianos called the fictional crisis a sort of dress rehearsal. 'The funniest thing was that we thought it was real at first.'
But last week's crisis was a simulation, and is part of the Food Safety Management Master's programme. Students learn a lot from it about communication among themselves, consumer responses, and the consequences and costs of such a crisis, says programme director Ralf Hartemink. 'Suddenly emotions and costs play a role. Even if there is perhaps no danger in it, consumers just don't want radioactivity in food.'
Next week the students will be visiting Unilever. Hartemink: 'They will hear there about how it works in reality when there is an incident - companies don't use the word crisis. In reality it is a lot more complex than what we have acted out in two days.'