Jan 7th 2014

Back to school

Horsemeat one year on - the school report

The horsemeat scandal – from ‘must try harder’ to an A*

Described as the biggest food fraud of the 21st century, the horsemeat scandal hit shoppers and shop keepers from Nicosia to Newcastle. It led to the withdrawal of tens of millions of beef products around the world. In the first six weeks of the scandal, horsemeat was mentioned more than 200,000 times on social media. Ahead of the panto season, a film of two people dressed in a horse costume, received more than a quarter of a million views on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmxcUfyuRzs

So one year on who is top of the class and who is left sitting in the naughty corner?

BIG BRANDS: (C+) for the best of them, while it’s back to the drawing board for the rest

Aldi, Findus, Birds Eye and Tesco were just some of the household names that had shelves of contaminated products to clear. All failed to avoid the fallout as consumer confidence fell. According to the global market research company Mintel, less than half of British shoppers (49%), trusted the food industry to provide safe food to eat, six months on from the crisis. Click here for more details: http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/food-safety-after-horse-meat-scandal

Sales fell too. Tesco CEO Phillip Clarke was one who had to own up to a “small but discernible impact” on frozen and chilled food, due to “customer response to equine DNA being detected”  http://www.supplymanagement.com/news/2013/tesco-sales-hurt-by-horse-meat-scandal

It was the Elliott Review that saved the brands from the naughty corner. In the interim findings of the government - commissioned report into the scandal, Professor Elliott, highlighted both Morrisons and McDonald’s for their good practice.

COMMS TEAMS: (B) a mixed bag but the shining lights bumped up the grade

In a survey of the UK’s top communication directors, conducted shortly after the scandal broke, a whopping 93 per cent told us that they had already had to deal with at least one crisis during their careers: http://bit.ly/19PZtsS

So crises are common place but few are as challenging as the horsemeat scandal. 
Even in a crisis as big as this, stars did emerge. Tesco’s prompt action received praise from many and won an award for best crisis management from CorpComms Magazine. The judges described Tesco as “showing grace under fire and having clear objectives that it delivered.” Click here for more:


The supermarket giant’s record during the crisis though was not unblemished. A slap on the wrist from the Advertising Standards Authority was one blip as was a call from UK farmers for it to do more to honour its pledge to source more meat, closer to home. 
Iceland kept a lower profile than Tesco during the height of the crisis but finished the year strongly with CEO Malcolm Walker becoming a ‘rock star’ in a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series:  


McDonald’s avoided the worst of the crisis but still gained plenty of praise when it was announced that its burger-making plants were to be opened up to the public. 

THE GOVERNMENT AND ITS REGULATORS: (C) slow starters but now working hard to stay out of the naughty corner

Many, including the Environment Secretary Owen Patterson, continue to claim that British food is some of the safest in the world and that the UK’s producers and retailers have a really good track record of selling good and reliable food to the public.
A slow start when the Government, the Food Standards Agency and Defra were all criticised for reacting too slowly to emerging events, meant time in the naughty corner. But action is now being taken, it appears. The Elliott Review will be delivered, in full, in the spring. Already the creation of a specialist food crime unit is being considered and the FSA has improved its knowledge gathering with the creation of an intelligence hub.     
Despite the optimism all parties admit the food industry remains vulnerable to criminal networks and to their fraudulent activity.

THE GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC: (A*) for the class clown

Confidence in the food industry and the safety of the food that we all eat has been dented. But when the journalists were reporting on the story, calling to account those in positions of authority, the great British public was keen to find the funnier side. Twitter jokes spread far and wide and many of the 200,000 messages on social media, in those initial weeks, were tongue in cheek.  According to research by Gorkana:


Such was the extent of the humour that the clothes retailer Primark, even claimed 7% of the share of voice on social media, because of a Twitter joke that was repeated thousands of times.
Then there was Paul Deemer and his film of a pantomime horse visiting a Tesco store. A challenge perhaps for store security staff but for most of the 263,454 viewers, a suitably British way to look at a scandal:


Long live the good old British sense of humour! 

Keith Beech is director of Core Management – Crisis, Organisation and Reputation which is part of the Nexus Communications Group