When I joined VT in 1967, the vending industry had grown to a point at which it was not novel, but had not been around long enough for most people to have much of an idea what it was. For that reason, industry leaders worked diligently to build awareness of the industry, and the National Automatic Merchandising Association established the strong public relations program that has functioned consistently to provide accurate media information, and to set the record straight when necessary.
We have been recalling this long history while following the peanut product recall. In trolling the Internet for news, we have been very pleased to find that local newspapers and broadcasters have been contacting vending operators in their areas to ask what they’re doing about their peanut snacks, and those operators have been presented as knowledgeable, articulate and responsive.
Of course, one can find occasional reminders that there still is work to be done. For example, in a Jan. 21 report on the recall, ABC News stated, “Studies out of the University of Georgia have shown salmonella can live in the peanut butter paste used in vending machine snacks for months."
We strongly suspect that the microorganisms can live equally well in the peanut butter paste used in snacks sold through newsstands, movie theater confection counters, convenience stores, hotel mini-bars and many other sources. We also are pretty sure that the University of Georgia knows this. We infer that the writers, confronted with something like “single-serve prewrapped shelf-stable candy, cookie or cracker items,” decided to simplify that description to aid immediate comprehension.
One also can find indications that a larger problem exists, and it is not attributable to the vending industry. One of the first “hits” we made when searching for peanuts-and-vending news was a blog authored by someone who had heard of the recall, inventoried the peanut products in the workplace vending machine, and set out to see whether any of the producers was conducting a recall. His company specializes in website optimization, so he naturally looked for this information on the Internet. The blog, dated January 21, is at straightupsearch.com, in /archives, at /2009/01 under /searching_for_p_3.html.
He had surprising difficulty. While the two companies that had recalled products made with a PCA peanut ingredient – McKee Food Corp. and Kellogg Co. – had set up their websites so a search like his would find their announcements, it required considerable digging to find information from other producers represented in his vending machine. In most cases, the digging succeeded; but, in a few, it did not.
The common-sense observer might be expected to reply, “This is not surprising; not recalling something isn’t news.” We can report that nearly all of the companies that taxed his ingenuity had, in fact, sent out press releases. We received and published them; mass-circulation news media naturally would not have stopped the presses to print a story about the absence of a threat.
All this is reasonable enough, but we are painfully aware that the modern world is not oversupplied with common sense. We are continually barraged by scare stories designed to sell newspapers, trial lawyers eager to launch class action suits, food faddists wishing to sell magical vegetable products from far-away lands, and “consumer advocates” seeking an expanded role for government in product oversight (expecting, of course, that this oversight will be conducted by well-paid regulators recruited from the ranks of consumer advocates). This tends to make people suspicious of anything offered for sale.
Under these conditions, it is not enough to do a good job; one must tell the world that one is doing it. We, and other observers, have recommended this for years to operators, who are much better at keeping everything running smoothly than they are at boasting about it. It seems that this advice can be offered to suppliers as well.
Of course, a company that processes peanuts for its products “in house,” and that prides itself on its long years of experience in turning out high-quality confections, may not see the urgency of informing consumers that its products are not contaminated. It may believe that its customers expect it to turn out wholesome items, and that they buy them for that reason. Or it may feel that, amid a storm of adverse publicity, an organization that does not have a problem does best to maintain a low profile.
We can sympathize wholeheartedly with that view, as with the operators who do not like to boast. But we must remind them that the present environment really calls for a more proactive response.
It might be worthwhile to consider a program under which current information about products not involved in a public health advisory would be provided by suppliers to operators in a form that would make it easy for the operators to post it in their locations. Vending is a major retail channel for snacks (which is why those snacks are associated with vending machines), and suppliers might do well to find more ways to turn this to their advantage.