The latest scare over ‘mad cow disease’ has sparked public chaos, with sales in free fall as shoppers shun beef. But how can the food industry, led by giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s, regain consumer confidence?

Now that the Government has admitted human deaths linked to “mad cow disease” could reach epidemic proportions, brand leaders affected by the crisis must mount an immediate defence.

Beef retailers in all fields, from beefburger chains to supermarkets, need immediately to reassure their customers that their products are of the highest quality and comply with stringent health and safety requirements.

Although some have withdrawn British beef, they need to follow through and rebuild consumer confidence – severely shattered by the current fiasco.

David Shute, managing director of advertising agency Kelly Weedon Shute and a man with 18 years’ experience in the food industry prior to that, says in a situation like this, crisis management would dictate that a company admits to a problem and then solves it.

He says fast-food chains should go right to the heart of the issue. They should withdraw all beef products and refocus on vegetarian brands or those containing chicken.

McDonald’s has now taken this step, the first time the world’s largest hamburger brand has stopped selling hamburgers – at least until it can source its beef from abroad.

Wimpy has followed suit after it experienced a huge drop in sales of beefburgers over the weekend immediately following the Government’s announcement. The chain, which has 270 outlets throughout the UK, took the decision based on economic factors while restating its belief in British beef. Now rival Burger King has fallen into line by banning British beef.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, which does not sell any beef products, reported a 40 per cent increase in business over the weekend compared with the same period last year. The chain saw large numbers of mothers with young children turning to its chicken burgers as they rejected beefburgers.

Shute suggests others affected should also publicise measures such as importing beef from the US. It is imperative that the public can see them clearly dealing with the problem.

In the past, similar scares in volving fast-moving consumer goods have been saved by crisis management – pulling the pro duct off the shelves followed by repackaging.

In the Eighties, Tylenol was removed from supermarket shelves after it was discovered that bottles of the painkiller had been contaminated with cyanide. Sales of Tylenol soared after the company repackaged it in tamper-proof bottles.

Perrier faced the same problem when its bottled water was found to contain benzene. Sales began to recover after Perrier took the Tylenol approach to the problem.

Given the scale of the present situation brand owners may have to consider scrapping some brands entirely – can anyone ever feel the same about Bovril, for instance?

Industry sources say brand scrapping is unnecessary but a swift defence of brands is vital – either through a major advertising campaign or brand diversification.

“There is no doubt that these brands [the burger chains] will be affected. Many products have been targeted at the family. The mothers, who are usually the gatekeepers for the family need to be reassured,” says one source.

Supermarkets and many fast-food outlets have deliberatley chosen to play down the risk of consumers catching Creutzfeld Jakob Disease (CJD) from beef infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Instead they are stubbornly standing by their products, and issuing protestations of quality in defence of their burgers.

However, the extent of the risk or the defence of the quality of beef, no matter how strongly it is policed, carries little weight with a public that has lost faith in a Government which has prevaricated for so long.

The response by brand owners, from food retailers to supermarkets, has been attacked by con sumer groups who say the industry needs to take tougher and im mediate action. Medical experts accuse the food industry of having no conscience.

A McDonald’s spokesman rebuts this: “We regard any customer concerns as serious. Our first concern is the health and safety of our customers. We have looked at the Government’s recommendations and our quality and control procedures already exceed those set down.”

The company suspended the sale of burgers and other products containing British beef at the weekend. Announcing the suspension, Paul Preston, McDonald’s chief executive officer said: “We believe British beef is safe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that recent announcements have led to a growing loss of consumer confidence in British beef which has not been restored. We have always put our customers first. They trust us to provide high quality, safe food.”

McDonald’s prompt reaction in suspending the use of British beef will pay high dividends for the company in the long term if the ex perience of other crisis-ridden brands is anything to go by. Expert marketing advice which suggests immediate recognition and removal of the problem has obviously been heeded by McDonald’s.

The UK launch of its Vegetable de luxe burger later this year was scheduled before the current crisis developed and aimed to provide a wider choice. Also available are vegetable nuggets.

Contrast Burger King. It maintains its burgers use “prime flank and forequarter …of excellent quality. Mechanically recovered meat or offal is not used in Burger King burgers”.

The company has no plans to launch a public information campaign. Instead, staff throughout the country’s outlets have been briefed to answer questions from customers to try to allay concerns.

In a statement to Marketing Week Burger King says: “We will not be over-reacting to the media hype. The Government has confirmed that beef is safe to eat. We are currently airing a commercial and will be continuing with our existing advertising.”

It has to be said that given the comments from the Government’s own adviser the term “media hype” seems a little unfair.

None of the supermarkets have withdrawn any beef products nor are they planning to do so. Most are making information leaflets available in their stores throughout the country.

Tesco is stepping up its own quality and control procedures to make sure they follow the Government’s recommendations. Information leaflets, providing details of meat products and whether or not they contain beef, will be provided.

The supermarket will also be providing a list of beef free products as well as information on non-meat items, such as biscuits, soups and sauces – that also contain beef derivatives – so that customers can avoid them if they want to.

A spokeswoman for Tesco says there are many products which initially may not be thought to contain beef products. She says the company understands the concerns of the public and is keen to do as much as possible to address them.

Sainsbury’s will also be issuing information leaflets in its stores. The company buys most of its beef from UK suppliers and as Marketing Week went to press it had no plans to review the arrangement.

Safeway claims the current Government recommendations do not apply to its beef, which is younger than 30 months.

Although Cow & Gate, manufacturer of baby food, produces several varieties of meat meals, it does not use British beef in any of them. The beef in its products is bought in Ireland and Holland – for commercial reasons rather than health concerns, says the company.

However, even Cow & Gate has noticed a drop in sales of meals containing beef. Boots The Chemist, which sells own-label and proprietary baby foods, issued a statement saying: “We always use the highest quality lean meat – we never use mechanically recovered beef or offal.”

However, the food industry is not alone in trying to present a low-key response to revelations that there is a link between CJD and BSE.

The Government has withdrawn a 250,000 three-day advertising campaign devised by Ogilvy & Mather to quell public fears.

The campaign was designed to counter a drop in sales of beef, which fell 15 per cent in December 1995 compared with figures for the same month in the previous year.

According to the Central Office of Information, the campaign was cancelled because it could create panic and because media coverage would provide enough information to the public. It seems the COI, at least, was not concerned about “media hype”.

In place of the ad campaign, the Government has set up a recorded freephone line containing a message from chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman.

The Meat & Livestock Commission has delayed a TV campaign on British beef, part of an ongoing campaign focusing on British beef, lamb and pork. A spokesman for the commission says the ad has been delayed because “it would have been inappropriate at the moment”.

Nutritionists and scientific experts have attacked the Government for not providing clear advice and the food industry for not taking the issue seriously enough.

Professor Richard Lacey, one of the country’s most prominent microbiology experts who has been saying for the last six years that there is a link between BSE and CJD in humans, maintains the Government is more concerned about the economic consequences than public health. He attacks the food industry which, he says, is only concerned with profit and has no conscience.

He adds: “Managing this crisis is not about allaying public fears. It is about public health. The entire national herd should be killed and beef imported.”

Lacey also suggests a complete ban on processed beef products made from old cows, especially those derived from offal or mince. Indeed, he goes even further, addressing the possible extra danger to young children from CJD, adding that the beef made from younger cows should not be given to children under 15.

The Consumers’ Association says it is time an independent food safety agency was set up. It criticises the Ministry of Agriculture Food & Fisheries which is trying to play the role of public champion as well as looking after the interests of the food and beef industries. The CA is also calling for a number of practical steps to be taken.

Immediately, the industry needs to provide a list of products that contain beef – both meat products and non-meat products so that consumers can see which products contain beef.

In the long term, the Government should quantify the risk of contracting CJD from beef. The food industry needs to introduce better labelling of food so that consumers can see what contains beef muscle and which non-meat products actually contain beef.

However, in the absence of clear and concise advice from the Government, the public is voting with its wallet by not buying fresh beef.

Butchers shops and restaurants throughout the capital have reported a big drop in the sale of beef, with many people choosing chicken, lamb or pork instead.

Beef has been removed from many school menus. Restaurants, while continuing to offer beef, are reviewing whether or not they will continue to do so in the future.

City analysts were sceptical about the impact of the current crisis on the share values of companies with major beef products. Most affected were dairy food companies such as Northern Foods, which lost 16p and went down to 183p at the beginning of the week. Unigate fell too, by 27p to 410p as did Robert Wiseman, showing a drop of 27p to 135p, in trepidation of a flood of milk imports from the continent.

Although small drops in the share values of some food retailers have been seen, analysts caution this is a short term reaction from which shares will recover. The crisis has been characterised by uncertainty – uncertainty over the risk, and even now, doubts over whether BSE may affect dairy products or other animals, such as sheep.

Until such doubts are removed it seems prudent that the food in-dustry responds by making consumer fears their prime concern. This may mean removing products, and, or, better labelling so consumers can see exactly what they are buying.

Although it is early days , the food industry appears to have reacted cautiously over the past week. As the full implications of the news sinks in we are likely to see more obvious signs of response from the brands concerned; if we don’t, the scale of the situation means that in time we may see some of them disappear entirely.

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