What’s your favourite horsemeat joke? Mine is “Went to the fridge to check my burgers, aaaaannndddd they're off!” There have been hundreds, with #horsepun still a popular hashtag weeks after the scandal first broke. It is heartening to see a little humour injected into the story because horsemeat isn’t actually dangerous - plenty of people around the world eat it, it’s just not mainstream in our culture. Some mischievous pubs such as the Lord Nelson in Southbank have even jumped on the public’s increased awareness of horsemeat by making a horse special burger so you can actually try a 100% horsemeat burger for yourself.
The problem, in terms of PR for the food industry, is that because of the consumer angle and the widespread nature of the problem affecting big brands, the coverage is unlikely to die down soon. It was first reported in January and it is still regularly a front page story on mainstream news outlets such as the BBC Online. Only last week horsemeat was found in Ikea meatballs, forcing the furniture giant to embarrassingly withdraw them from sale in 14 European countries and I’m sure that won’t be the last we hear of it. The problem is not necessarily the safety factor but the bigger issue of so many brands not knowing what is in the food they are selling.
The scandal is Europe-wide and not one that can be resolved overnight. A whole rethink of the food supply chain is needed and a debate should be had about the true cost of meat. Looking at the products involved, there is no doubt that intense price competition in certain sectors of the food industry is a major contributing factor to the fact many of us will have unknowingly eaten horse. The scandal is certain to make consumers think twice about buying cheap meat.
This brings us to British meat producers. The British farming industry has for a long time had to conform to some of the strictest animal welfare standards that are not applicable to most of the EU. This has left British farmers’ prices uncompetitive in the rest of the EU and has led to much of the meat sold in Britain being imported from abroad. However, it has made our product a premium one. In the light of recent supply chain issues (as well as a devalued pound) British exports could increase significantly.
Tesco, as the largest food retailer in the UK, has taken the brunt of much of the coverage. In some ways it has been a PR disaster considering only 3 out of 259 products actually contained any horse but Tesco has handled the situation sympathetically. It clearly and very quickly apologised to its customers for its mistakes by taking out full page adverts in the national press, setting up a new food website, speaking at the National Farmers Union (NFU) conference last week and pledging to buy meat from closer to home. This is a move obviously welcomed by the farmers in attendance at the conference who have been pushing British retailers to give greater support to UK farmers for decades. NFU President, Peter Kendall welcomed the news commenting “British farmers [invest] a lot of time, effort and heartache to produce high-quality beef and need to be supported by retailers”.
There are PR opportunities for companies that have forged close links with their suppliers and for that reason have created a genuine product that they can be sure is contaminate-free. For example McDonalds is “very confident” its burgers are free of horsemeat and believes this is because of its close links with its farmers. McDonalds has shown it is possible to sell 100% beef at low prices because of good, sustainable working relationships. Simlarly Waitrose, which never buys on the open market, reported last week via an email to customers that none of its tests have shown any horse contamination. The shortening of the supply chain and building of relationships seems to be the answer to a contamination-free product, as well ensuring a more consistent price of meat for buyers and greater piece of mind for the farmer.
The supermarkets and food processors involved really only have themselves to blame for the whole incident. This story has brought to light what farmers have been saying for a long time. By constantly treating farmers unfairly, and putting pressure on them to produce meat as cheaply as possible, an incident like this was bound to happen at some point. It is now up to the large conglomerates which hold the power in the food industry to make the changes required to restore public confidence in their products. Working more closely with farmers would be a good start. To ensure a contaminate-free product in the future may mean higher prices of meat in the long term, but in terms of paying a fair price for quality product, I believe public opinion is moving in that direction.
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