Surviving the scare

Scottish Quality Salmon has moved to calm consumers’ fears, but has too much damage already been done?

Hardly a week seems to go by without newspaper headlines warning of yet another food scare. Eggs, beef, chicken and even bottled water have all been embroiled in fears over infected products causing cancers or other potentially fatal diseases.

The Scottish salmon industry is the latest food sector to be hit by a scare following an article in US journal Science in January, which claimed that eating more than three portions of farmed salmon a year could increase the risk of developing cancer due to the high levels of toxic chemicals found in it.

Scottish Quality Salmon (SQS), the quality assurance mark for farmed salmon, claims that the report has been largely discredited by the fact that the scientist who wrote the piece had received funding from an anti-pollution lobby group. However, the salmon farming industry fears that mud sticks and is launching a campaign to reassure consumers that its product is safe (MW last week). While this may be a tried-and-tested method of winning back consumer confidence, it is essential that any such campaign follows action to rectify any perceived problems with the food products and that it is executed with honesty.

Regaining the public’s trust

Chris Cowpe, vice-chairman of DDB London, which has handled the advertising account for the Meat & Livestock Commission since 1993, says that it is crucial to be transparent when trying to win back consumer confidence, as the body was forced to do following the BSE scare of 1995. He says: “There are two things that any food category affected by a scare needs to do. The first is to deal with the problem itself in an open and transparent way. The second is to wait until the public trust you again before you try to re-engage them.”

The salmon campaign, which breaks on Friday (July 9), has two phases. The first will focus on the welfare of the farmed salmon and its effect on the environment and the second phase will concentrate on the health benefits of the fish.

Despite sales of farmed salmon returning to normal levels, the campaign is still being run to dispel any lingering doubts in the minds of consumers. Following the scare, sales of salmon initially dropped by 12 per cent to 400 tonnes a week by the end of January, falling further to 38 per cent below normal levels at fewer than 300 tonnes a week by mid-February, when they began to recover.

SQS carried out focus groups in January to find out what consumers really felt about salmon and salmon farming. SQS director of communications Julie Edgar says that they found that many shrugged the scare off as a “Daily Mail-type” story, but the group is still keen to dispel any consumer doubt about the product while raising awareness of fish welfare standards.

Still your favourite dish?

This is probably just as well, as the issue of fish poisoning was back on the agenda last week following the latest report on fish from the Food Standards Agency. While the FSA upped its recommended level of fish intake to two portions a week for women of child-bearing age and four for everyone else, its report admitted that certain types of fish are more prone to poisoning and toxins than others. Its report also contained the ominous line that there are levels of dioxide found in salmon, but these are within consumption guidelines.

But the fish industry is some way off suffering the problems that red meat and eggs have been hit with in the past. Richard Hammond, managing partner at Spirit Advertising, which created the campaign for SQS, believes that the food industry is plagued by scares because many of the industry’s bodies do not have prepared crisis management strategies in place.

He says: “The food industry organisations have not been prepared for these scares whereas in other industries if there is any potential risk to the public, they have already planned for it. If you are prepared it means that you evaluate whether the issue is a real problem or one that is just being whipped up by the press.”

The Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC) is the first to admit that the depth of the 1995 BSE crisis took it by surprise. Consumer marketing manager Chris Lamb says: “We hold our hands up on BSE, we were caught out. One of the key things that we learned from BSE is that there are some things that you can anticipate beforehand and then if a problem does escalate you can at least have some knowledge to build a response on. We have learned to keep an eye on qualitative issues now.”

There is widespread agreement that consumer research should be the basis of every decision made following a food scare. Lamb says that the MLC spent a lot of time talking to consumers to try to understand what they were thinking and what they wanted to see the MLC doing. It led to the introduction of a quality mark for minced beef, which consumers had perceived as being made from low-quality meat, and a return to the Recipe for Love advertising campaign, which consumers were already familiar with. This strategy helped beef sales to recover to pre-BSE levels by 2001.

A stamp of assurance

In the case of the salmonella scare, British Egg Information Service spokeswoman Amanda Cryer says that the industry focused on sorting out the problem before trying to market British eggs. That meant introducing a quality assurance scheme – a Lion mark and “best before” date are stamped on eggs from hens that had been given a salmonella vaccine. Once this system was in place, it was supported by a print and PR campaign, explaining what the Lion mark was about.

A television campaign was also used to get the idea across that eggs are a modern food and have a place in today’s diet. All communications avoided mentioning the scare. “It is important to focus on other aspects of the product as, once it is safe, you can press forward,” she says. “And the fact that you are advertising per se is a reassurance that the product is safe.”

Consumers may have forgiven many food categories for the scares that they have been through, but if the food industry is to avoid any further crises and accompanying falling sales then it must start to put safety and quality first.

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