When the dust settles on the latest scandal to sweep the British food industry, it will be down to marketers and communications bosses to start the delicate process of rebuilding consumers’ trust in the products they find on supermarket shelves.
The Sudan 1 contamination scare, which has rocked the UK food sector over the past ten days, has led to Britain’s biggest ever product recall and is set to cost the industry tens of millions of pounds in lost sales and disruption. But the potential long-term damage to the food industry’s reputation is hard to gauge.
The implications of the crisis have shocked even experienced food analysts. Many have been surprised that a single batch of chilli powder, contaminated with carcinogenic red dye Sudan 1, could find its way into nearly 500 products.
The journey of the contaminated chilli powder imported from India to a Premier Foods factory at the end of 2003, where it was added to Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce, is by now infamous. But the fact that this Worcester Sauce brand was used as a flavouring in so many products, from supermarket own-label ready-meals to branded goods, highlights the concerns people have about centralisation in the food industry. What if the contamination had been a dangerous pathogen or poison rather than low-risk Sudan 1?
Industry players have used the crisis as an opportunity to talk about the speed of their reactions once the contamination came to light and how they swiftly pulled the affected products from the shelves. But they have expressed little contrition for selling contaminated goods, except to apologise for “the inconvenience” to consumers. They are trying hard to distance themselves from the problem. Sainsbury’s says it has yet to find out from Premier Food how long it has been selling contaminated products.
Making a bad impression
However, Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs has not been impressed with the checking procedure and transparency so far revealed in the food industry. He has warned that “ultimately it is the responsibility of the food industry to check their products” and has hinted that the supermarkets may have to begin introducing more stringent food checks themselves.
A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer, which had to recall 16 food products including soup and ready-meals, says: “We are very proud that we managed to remove them [the affected products] so that customers did not have to worry about what they were buying. I think that customers already trust us and they will continue to do so. It’s an industry issue rather than an M&S one.”
However, the chain has refused to apologise to its shoppers for selling them the contaminated products. And it refuses to confirm how long it has been selling goods containing Sudan 1. Some estimates suggest the contaminated goods have been on sale in the UK for up to 16 months. But M&S refuses to comment on this.
McDonald’s is also confident that its reputation will not be damaged by its role in the scandal. It has been forced to withdraw its contaminated low-fat Caesar dressing, usually served with its new salad range. A McDonald’s spokeswoman says she believes the chain has been selling contaminated dressing since April 2004, but the company has not decided © whether to apologise to its customers. “As for saying sorry, we haven’t made a decision yet.”
Pot Noodle, which recalled three flavours contaminated with the dye, will not alter its marketing plans in response to the crisis. It is launching a new advertising campaign within the next fortnight, though a Unilever spokesman says it will not include its previous tagline “The slag of all snacks”. He says: “Recalls happen from time to time and consumers expect you to deal with the problem quickly. We have done that and worked quickly to get fresh stocks back.”
Walkers Snackfoods says in its statement that levels of contaminant are negligible and “unlikely to have any negative health implications” but production of Worcester Sauce crisps is on hold. And McCormick, which has been selling eight affected products under the Schwarz brand and four manufactured on behalf of other companies, was quick to shift the blame up the supply chain.
“McCormick has been working with its suppliers to ensure that their products are tested prior to dispatch. It is their responsibility to ensure that their products comply with the Sudan 1 European regulatory requirements.”
But this is missing the point about branding. A brand is a mark of quality and trust. Consumers do not care whose responsibility it is to carry out food safety tests. The revelation that supermarkets and manufacturers do not routinely test for Sudan 1 adds to the impression that brands are failing to protect their consumers.
Who’s putting safety first?
A brand name is supposed to be a promise of safety, but that promise has been broken on a grand scale. The reassuring words of company statements may end up frightening the public even more, as the industry tries to convince them that the problem is insignificant. The Food Standards Agency plays down the threat to the public’s health from Sudan 1. A statement says: “At the levels present the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any food known to be contaminated. There is no risk of immediate ill-health.” But consumers may wonder about the risks of eating contaminated products four or five times a week over a 16-month period.
They may recall reassuring words about the safety of beef in the Eighties and Nineties during the BSE scare. Some might remember television footage of government minister John Gummer giving a beef burger to his young daughter as proof of its safety. Yet more than100 people have died since then from CJD, believed to be contracted from BSE-infected beef.
A deafening silence
The widespread nature of the Sudan 1 crisis allows retailers and brand owners to shield themselves from the glare of negative publicity. As one senior advertising source says: “You could grasp the nettle and do an ad campaign that says there was a problem but we have fixed it, but this sort of reassurance is very expensive. And it would be brave because it draws attention to the problem.” He concludes that the best thing for brands and retailers to do is keep their heads down, do the minimum to reassure customers that they are dealing with the problem and hope nobody notices.
“The general point is that people are now more and more suspicious of even trusted brands delivering healthy and safe food and nutrition for themselves and their families,” he adds. But he says products usually recover from even the worst crises. Beef sales are now back at high levels following the BSE scare and egg sales have also recovered despite the salmonella scare. Both of these products have been helped by the popularity of the Atkins Diet.
A passage from India
The source thinks the Sudan 1 scare will dent the heady growth in sales of ready-meals and convenience foods. The international journey of the contaminated batch of chilli between India, the UK and beyond may also enhance the appeal of locally produced foods. Though ironically it was locally slaughtered beef that was thought to be behind a cluster of BSE cases, the source believes the appeal of farmers’ markets will grow.
But food producers and retailers appear to be repeating past mistakes by attempting to cover up their roles in the crisis. Brands seem not to have learnt lessons from past scares (see Box).
There have even been confused reactions from brands that have not suffered from Sudan 1 contamination. The Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce brand, owned by HP Foods, was not contaminated by the red dye, but its managers fear people will confuse it with Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce. An L&P spokesman warned last week of concerns that its sales would be damaged by confusion arising from the crisis (MW last week).
But in a surprising turnaround, HP Foods marketing director for L&P Graham White later told Marketing Week: “Looking at the EPOS data for Saturday February 19 (the day after the scare broke), Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, sales are exactly in line with what we would expect them to be.”
Even so, the company is to run a campaign to reassure consumers that L&P is not affected by the contamination. This is likely to include television advertising through agency Mustoes. White says L&P has sales of some £11m a year and takes over 90 per cent of the Worcester Sauce market. He adds that it is not used in any own-label product. By contrast, Premier’s Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce has sales of about £1m a year.
White adds on a more general level: “There are so many food scares, I’m not sure that the public know who to trust any more.”
But unless the biggest retailers and manufacturers can reassure customers that they are taking reasonable care to ensure the safety of their food, people may turn their backs on established brands.
Additional reporting by Caroline Thain
A SCARE TOO FAR?
Coffee can cause cancer and increases miscarriage risks; Scottish salmon might kill you; the Atkins Diet is potentially deadly; prawns could be fatal; beef, chicken and cheese have given rise to concerns; and the egg industry faced bankruptcy after a salmonella scare.
The latest controversy surrounds prepared foods containing the red dye Sudan 1. Companies affected by the scare should be following the usual procedures recommended by crisis management experts – admitting the problem as soon as it is identified, rectifying it, recalling products immediately and being honest and open in its wake.
However, in the past brand owners of food, beverage, car and even fly-killing brands have had varying degrees of success in following the template.
The classic crisis management case study is Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol tampering scare in the Eighties. An individual laced the brand-leading analgesic with cyanide, and seven people in the US died as a result. The company acted swiftly, recalling products at a cost of $100m (£52m), and relaunched the brand with tamper-proof packaging. This is considered to have saved the brand from certain extinction.
In contrast, Coca-Cola was thought to have acted slowly and grudgingly when it withdrew bottles from sale in Belgium after attacks of nausea and stomach cramps in children were reported in 1999. This damaged its standing in the market for years afterwards.
Carcinogenic chemicals above the British legal standard level were also found in Coca-Cola’s bottled water brand Dasani in 2004. The new brand was already reeling from negative publicity after being exposed as bottled tap water from south London and could not withstand screaming headlines linking it with cancer, leading to it being withdrawn.
In 1990 Perrier suffered a disaster when benzene, a poisonous cancer-causing liquid, was found in the sparkling water, resulting in 160 million bottles being binned and a $263m (£137m) loss. The company kept on advertising throughout the recall period and backed the product’s return to the shelf with heavy marketing, but it is questionable whether the brand, since sold to NestlÃ©, has fully recovered from the scare.
Ford motor company spent more than $2bn (£1.04bn) recalling Firestone tyres for safety reasons in 2001 before a nine-month replacement process. The tyres had been linked to hundreds of road deaths and injuries, most involving the sports utility vehicle Ford Explorer.
Flawed Persil Power washing powder in 1994 cost Unilever millions of pounds, when a month after its launch it was found to contain an active agent that ate through clothes. A £22m marketing campaign ran two years afterwards to try to restore consumer confidence in a revamped product. It took years for the brand to recover.
Some Vapona insect killer sprays were cleared from shelves along with own-label products from Boots and Superdrug in 2002 amid fears that the dichlorvos chemical found in the sprays could cause skin, liver and breast cancer. Selling a product containing the chemical, which is also known as DDVP, has since been made illegal.