The news that Tesco and other major supermarkets have been selling beef burgers containing up to 30% horsemeat has led to headlines, social media jokes, but above all consumer concern. What is it we’ve been feeding our children exactly?
Now the issue is not that horsemeat is bad for you - the media has been keen to point out that the burgers are not causing a public health concern. The issue is one of trust, of transparency and for the food industry, of traceability. Consumer confidence in our competitive retail market is crucial and comes on the back of recent diet advice and the labelling debate. How can supermarkets tell us how much salt or sugar a product contains when they don’t even know what meat is being used?
This crisis leads the public to ask simply how can they be sure that all the meat products, or anything else for that matter, are genuinely what the supermarkets claim them to be? It is reported that of the 31 beef meal products tested, including burgers, cottage pie, curry and lasagne, 21 tested positively for pig DNA. All this puts a different spin on a mixed grill!
So what is the right way for Tesco and its competitors to deal with this crisis?
COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION.
This is no time to batten down the hatches and blame your supplier. Sadly, Lidl at the time of writing has not issued a statement and refuses to speak to the media. Too late. The story has hit and silence is often equated with guilt or something to hide in these situations.
Yes, the burgers supplied are produced by Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak, but the consumer is only interested in knowing that the supermarket understands what it is purchasing and selling. We know our huge supermarkets make large profits and so we expect them to behave ethically and appropriately. We demand it.
Tesco should be applauded for facing the crisis head on and putting up senior directors for media interviews. Tesco’s message has been clear, concise and has offered assurance. Textbook. No hiding, no silence. Yes, the company has made it clear that their supplier was responsible for producing the products but it is taking it on the chin and accepting that they have to ensure what they purchase is what they believe they are marketing and selling to the customers… especially when their name is on the packet.
The sad news of a helicopter crash in central London today has led to this story falling down the news agenda but the damage is already done. Supermarkets have a task ahead of them to regain consumer confidence. They have to use all the communications tools available to rebuild their relationship so that we trust, and believe, in the products they’re selling us.
Elisabeth Lewis-Jones is CEO of Liquid, an integrated communications consultancy with offices in Birmingham, Guernsey, Jersey and London. She was president of the CIPR in 2008, chairman of the PRCA Council in 2011/12 and is recognised as one of the leading crisis PR practitioners in the UK (PR Week).