Reverberate
2012 Finalist

Reacting to a crisis

Reacting to a crisis

It is now more than three weeks since the news first broke that processed beef products sold in UK supermarkets had tested positive for horse DNA. Since the initial announcements the situation has developed and the controversy continues to hit the headlines on a daily basis, showing little sign of coming to a conclusion.

The basic issue stems from horse DNA being found in value burgers and ready meals. This, of course, has thrown the whole issue of food traceability into doubt, and calls into question the value of assurance schemes and traceability audits - in consumers' minds, at least.

The issue is one of trust and therefore one of reputation. The problem is - who is to blame and who can be trusted?

The supermarkets involved, and there are only a handful that have been untouched by this, executed their PR crisis plans swiftly and removed affected products from the shelves quickly and without debate. More importantly, they apologised to customers for the breach of trust. Tesco, who received the highest profile negative coverage around the initial incident, led the way in dealing with the crisis response, placing full-page adverts in several national newspapers stating the presence of horsemeat in products was "absolutely unacceptable" and that "we and our supplier have let you down and we apologise."  This quick reaction, along with the promise of more rigorous testing moving forward, will go some way to restoring consumer confidence in their brand, although the question will remain as to how this could have happened in the first place. 

Communication from the FSA and government has been slower, with the FSA taking its time to confirm that there is no risk to consumers and the government being accused of failing to take action. Of course, it is right that investigations were thorough and conclusive before a statement on product safety was issued, but the time elapsed leaves them open to criticism that they have failed to get a grip quickly enough.

The news that the issue appears to have a criminal basis probably helps the beleaguered food industry from a reputation point of view. After all, if criminals have 'worked the system' then, whilst the loopholes that have been exploited clearly need closing, the overall premise of the traceability schemes currently in place should stand scrutiny moving forward.

But the depth and reach of the situation does mean that there is still likely to be many more days and weeks of investigation before the full facts are known. And that is not such good news. Who else might be caught up in the controversy - perhaps with no fault on their own part? And what will the ramifications be for the food industry moving forward? There are calls for routine DNA testing across the industry but that comes at a price - will consumers be prepared to pay or will it have to be absorbed by the red meat supply chain - a supply chain that is under financial pressure due to the current economic recession and high raw material costs.

And, whilst the government, processors and supermarkets might want this crisis to disappear quickly, it looks like the story will continue for a little while yet. What the food industry and retailers must do is ensure that lines of communication are kept open and public responses are rapid to ensure that reputations are protected and to help restore consumer confidence in food labelling. 

Lauren C 13:25

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