There is something ineffably smug (though sadly by no means unique) about Marks & Spencer’s reaction to the Sudan 1 carcinogenic dye scare. After withdrawing 16 affected products from its shelves, it trumpeted its achievement with the words: “We are very proud that we managed to remove them so that customers did not have to worry about what they are buying…customers already trust us and will continue to do so. It’s an industry issue rather than an M&S one.”
Well no, actually. It’s an industry issue and an M&S one (not to mention an Asda one, a McDonald’s one, a Tesco one, a Sainsbury’s one, and of course a Premier Foods one). These, and many others, are trusted brands that have just been tarnished because of their inadequate monitoring of the food chain.
It’s not sufficient to clear the shelves with a triumphant flourish and blame such remote entities as the ‘supply line’, ‘food processing’, ‘India’ and the ‘regulatory authorities’ (in short anyone and everything apart from the brand owners and supermarket chains themselves). Consumers have little or no cognisance of these things, but are, by contrast, inclined to trust brands in matters governing their personal welfare. No great surprise really, since these brands have invested billions of pounds over the years in building up this trustful relationship.
True, there are mitigating circumstances for the brand owners’ conspiratorially muted response to this crisis. After all – it could be argued – no one’s going to die, so why make a fuss about it? While there is indeed no firm evidence that Sudan 1, in the amounts ingested, will lead to malignant cancer, such complacency misses the point. Which is this: suppose the substance that penetrated nearly 500 product ranges without detection had been lethally toxic – would we have known in time? The question is of course unanswerable, but it has a chilling uncertainty about it nonetheless. We recall, for example, the fiasco over BSE in the Nineties and the bogus reassurances put out about the safety of British beef at the time. And perhaps wonder whether, a decade on, the checks and balances are – in practice – that much better.
Ironically, this view seems to be shared by the chairman of the Foods Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs (the FSA was itself a by-product of the BSE crisis). He has opined that it is ‘ultimately the responsibility of the food industry to check their products’ and clearly believes that supermarkets should do more to help.
More sophisticated apologists of the ‘do nothing’ school could, however, resort to a slightly refined argument. Granted the food scare should not have been allowed to happen in the first place, and that further restrictions on the food supply chain will be inevitable, the important thing now is not to sow panic. In this view a high-profile mea culpa, in say the form of an advertising campaign, would simply send out an alarmist message to the public. It would indeed be a brave brand owner or supermarket that broke ranks in such circumstances and drew unwelcome attention to itself (not least from inside the industry). But that is not a convincing argument for doing nothing and lying low. The question of corroded public trust will not be solved by ignoring it.
Sorry may indeed be the hardest word. But it would be a start.
Stuart Smith, Editor