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Poison 220 people, kill an old lady and claim quality systems okay

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By Benjamin Haslem

Another  example of poor crisis management has come across my desk.

Health authorities in the Australian State of Queensland are investigating an outbreak of food poisoning that may have contributed to a woman's death and sickened 220 others.

The food poisoning apparently affected people who had attended up to 40 different Melbourne Cup events on 5 November. Sadly a 77-year-old woman has died.

The food was provided to each event by catering firm Piccalilli Catering, and was probably caused by eggs used to make mayonnaise.

The outbreak received blanket media coverage, particularly in Queensland.

For Piccalilli this is potentially disastrous for its business.

To the company's credit, it issued a media statement within hours, posting it on front page of the company website.

On first blush, it seems the company has followed good crisis management practice. It accepts the likelihood its mayonnaise was to blame; explains the eggs in question were sourced from a previously reliable supplier and emphasises its "deeply upset and distressed by this outcome".

But on closer inspection there's a key word missing from the statement: Sorry.

After shifting the blame to the unnamed supplier - there's nothing wrong with that - the company then makes this extraordinary claim: "It is of some comfort to know that there has not been a breakdown in our own quality systems".

Sorry Piccalilli, you can't poison 220 people and then claim your quality systems haven't broken down.

Leave the line out and say sorry (though I suspect every PR's best friend - the lawyer - could be behind the lack of an apology).