Hard-won reputations are losers in horse meat scandal

by Ken McEwen, Ken McEwen Public Relations

It may have created a field day for comedians and those with Photoshop skills, but the horse meat scandal is a very serious matter that has shaken our faith in some of the country’s best-known brands.

Many of us will have sniggered when we saw photographs of a horse lying across the self-service checkouts with the message “unexpected item in the bagging area”, or the doctored Findus “Beef Lasag-neigh” packaging.

But, behind the laughter, this is a scandal that has inflicted serious damage to customer trust not just in the brands directly affected, but in the wider food processing and retailing industry.

horse bagging

Some have sought to point out that eating horse meat is quite acceptable in many fellow EU countries. But that completely misses the point.

No matter what price pressure manufacturers or retailers are under, there can be no excuse for illegally passing off a cheaper product as something else. It seems likely that prosecutions, fines and, even, jail sentences will follow.

Not surprisingly, as the story unfolds, many are questioning whether the horse meat scandal is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not often that we turn to Government for a succinct summing up, but, the Commons Food and Rural Affairs Committee hit the nail on the head. “It seems improbable,” they say, “that individuals prepared to pass horsemeat off as beef, illegally, are applying the high hygiene standards rightly required in the food production industry.”

For our food industries, who have worked hard to build up trust, this is a hammer blow.

IoD Scotland magazine

A version of this blog appeared in the IoD Scotland Magazine Spring 2013

The storyline has been that that producers and retailers could trace their supply chain right back to the individual farm. To reinforce this image we have been presented with packaging that carries pictures of producers. The horse meat scandal makes us question the reality.

Apart from the damage to hard-won reputations, there are also very obvious financial consequences.

In the aftermath of the first revelation about horse meat in burgers, £300 million was wiped off the value of Tesco. It comes at a bad time as the supermarket fights to retain its market share against rivals.

For Findus, too, the revelations could hardly come at a worse time. The Findus Group agreed a major restructuring and £220 million cash injection late last year. Ironically one of the cuts Findus made, as it fought to reduce its financial losses, was to dispense with its senior UK PR people. That may now seem like a false economy.

Research suggests that the whole sorry affair has changed our priorities and our buying patterns. Presumably fuelled by concern about the origins of the meat slurry that goes into producing cheap burgers and ready meals, research has found that quality now figures much higher on our priorities.

A survey by PR Week/OnePoll found that quality now rates above price amongst shoppers. Perhaps surprisingly, it is 18-24 year-olds who seem to be leading this trend, with 31% of them having voted with their feet and changed where they shop.

A more recent poll by YouGov for Sky News echoes these results. It found that one in five people have changed the way they shop as a result of the scandal.

If there is a silver lining on this cloud, it comes with anecdotal evidence that traditional family butchers are seeing an increase in business. I am not surprised.

butcher

As a family we have been buying all our meat products from the local butcher for some time. We find the quality is better and we trust his supply chain, for the good reason that we pass the farms every day.

A hand written sign for his pork proudly proclaims “Food miles = 9”. Not only is that good for quality, it is also good for the environment and the local economy!
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