PRs saddle up to ride out 'horse burger' scandal

A French butcher cuts a piece of horse meat on a block in a horse butchery shop in Marseille. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

A French butcher cuts a piece of horse meat on a block in a horse butchery shop in Marseille. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

Thu, Feb 21, 2013, 00:00

Five weeks after we added the word horseburgers to our vocabularies, the brand “pack shot” hall-of-shame continues to expand daily, the criminal investigations are under way and supermarket shoppers are consuming a drip-feed of test results.

Is this lasagne 5 per cent horse meat, the full Findus, completely innocent of all equine connections or d) it doesn’t matter as I’m never touching a readymeal again.

If the answer for most or even some people is d), then the food industry has big, big problems. In the meantime, it’s all to play for, which is why public relations companies are playing their crisis management hands – no pun intended – as best they can.

There’s plenty of work to go around. Heneghan PR has the ABP Food Group account, as it has done since the days of the beef tribunal. Q4PR does work for Tesco and also has the Rangeland account. Drury Communications has Greencore, while Gibney Communications is handling Oak Farm Foods.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) uses in-house public relations, but also Weber Shandwick. MKC has issued statements for Monaghan meat supplier McAdam Foods and Supermacs (100 per cent Irish beef) has gone through Galway Evolve PR.

So what have we learned so far? How can brands avoid reputational mincemeat and dine out on PR steak instead? What’s the best way to reassure the carnivorous public that they’re really not the guinea pigs in some continent-wide food manufacturing experiment where the cheapest species to kill is relabelled as “beef”?

Here’s a quick, 100 per cent microwaveable guide.

Firstly, whatever you do, don’t bring domestic pets into it. Iceland chief executive Malcolm Walker’s “that’s just the Irish, isn’t it?” remark on Panorama wasn’t his only faux pas. “Did we test for horse? No. But we haven’t tested for dog or cat either? And there might be dog or cat. You can’t test for everything.” Lovely.

Blame Johnny Foreigner. Sure, Walker’s comments, according to an Iceland spokesman, “were not intended to be disrespectful to the Irish people”.

But across the food industry in general, there is much to be gained from deliberately pointing the finger at French suppliers or Polish gangs or Romanian abattoirs and hoping public xenophobia will do the rest.

Big players must suck it up. Tesco is far from the only retailer to have stocked horseburgers labelled as beef, but it was the packaging for the Tesco Everyday Beef Burger (29 per cent horse) that was photoshopped to include the words “now with added Shergar”. A large portion of flak is to be expected – Tesco has almost a 30 per cent share of both the British and Irish grocery markets, giving it a head-above-parapet status when it comes to the popular pastime of directing opprobrium against supersized supermarkets.

Illustrate with care. This top tip is not for the food industry, but for the media reporting the scandal. The stock image slapped on your website might look like a generic picture of a man eating a burger, but those familiar layers, that sesame seed bun and that drooping corner of processed cheese makes it look distinctly like a Big Mac. This is awkwardly libellous, as McDonald’s remains untainted by any horse-related shenanigans.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have fires to stamp out. When Oak Farm Foods, the UK trading name of Dawn Fresh Foods, was implicated in the scandal last weekend, both McDonald’s – handled by Drury – and its Irish supplier Dawn Meats (Murray Consultants) separately moved to clarify that Dawn Meats is not linked to Dawn Fresh Foods and that there was “no question of any crossover of product”.

Use phrases like “deep clean”. Irish food group Greencore was on to a winner when it said it had conducted a “deep clean” of its Bristol site after the bolognese sauce produced there for Asda was found to contain 4.8 per cent horse. These two little words subtly suggest that horse DNA is a contaminant that merely crept into the food production process, like specks of dirt, and that its presence has little to do with actual business practices.

Finally, if all else fails, don’t do a Gummer. British chancellor George Osborne refused to say whether he would eat a spaghetti bolognese readymeal when asked by a Sky News reporter, prop-in-hand. This looked bad, but not anywhere near as bad as former agriculture minister John Gummer looked during the BSE crisis when he tried to persuade his daughter to eat a burger for the cameras. Being four, she wasn’t too impressed, and neither was the beef-eschewing public.

In short, never work with children or mislabelled animals.

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