Controversy Continues to Plague SA Meat Industry

The ‘horse meat’ controversy erupted in the United Kingdom on the 16th January this year amid claims by The Food Safety Authority of Ireland that beef burgers with traces of equine DNA, including one product classed as 29% horse, were being supplied to supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group.

Ten million burgers were taken off the shelves, by retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores. The repercussions of the statement by the Food Safety Authority had far reaching consequences for these retailers in terms of their reputations and bottom line profit margins.

Many South African meat producers, manufacturers and their clients were surprised by the University of Stellenbosch’s study that found that soya, donkey, goat and water buffalo were to be found in up to 68% of the 139 minced meats, burger patties, deli meats, sausages and dried meats tested. In other cases, even undeclared plant matter was detected.

An interesting point from a crises communications or issues management perspective is that we could see it affecting our local market weeks prior to the release of the University of Stellenbosch’s study.  Our consultation to those clients that could possibly be affected by the controversy was to probe their meat suppliers with key questions and to request updated certification of meat sources and processes.  Thereafter, we could understand the facts and prepare relevant positioning statements for all likelihoods that could potentially damage the company’s reputation.

The first thing I’d do  if I was a journalist would be to purchase meat products from retailers and fast food outlets and test the produce, with the hope of landing a sensational story.  Imagine for a second, what would you think if you saw this blazoned across the front page of The Mail & Guardian?

“BEEF BURGERS AT {INSERT NAME OF FAVOURITE FAST FOOD CHAIN} CONTAIN TRACES OF GOAT & DONKEY DNA”  

I can assure you that you would be hesitant to visit that fast food chain again for quite a while. Digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook would be aflutter with photo-shopped images of those products with the jokes at the company’s expense appearing never ending.

South African companies who either process or purchase meat products can expect to come under increasing pressure from investors, analysts and board members  to place appropriate emphasis on the importance of their supply chain and take steps to ensure they are fit for purpose.

Even though the story has mysteriously gone quiet over the past 10 days, these companies should expect a surge in the conversation when the first journalist reveals findings of goat or water buffalo traces in a South African product.

Our advice to South African companies would be to probe your supply chain and bring in a reputation management agency that can point out the pitfalls and develop a crises response and communications plan when your company’s name is blazoned across the front page of the Mail & Guardian.

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