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Horse meat scandal puts grocers through the mincer

January 17, 2013

TescoUntil a couple of days ago, few outside the food retail and logistics business would ever have heard of Silvercrest. Now it has achieved household notoriety as the weak-link in the food chain that has served illegal horse meat up on British tables, in the guise of own-label supermarket beef burgers.

The reputational damage has, rightly, been severe for all those involved. Tesco – which fessed up to at least one line of its apparently legit beef burgers being contaminated with 29% horse meat – has seen £300m wiped from its stock market valuation overnight and has now taken out full-page ads in most national newspapers, grovelling abjectly. The timing could not have been worse, from a corporate point of view. Just days ago, a halfway decent set of financials had seemed to indicate that Tesco was on the ramp of recovery.

Luckily for Tesco, it is no longer alone. A host of other high street names – Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-Op, Morrisons, Burger King among them – have now opted to clear their shelves of the offensive products. In some cases because they use the same supplier, ABP/Silvercrest, in others merely as a “precaution” lest the same fate might befall their own supply chain. Only McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer have been able to stand aside, smugly waving a clean bill of health.

Their smugness is unwarranted. This disaster could so easily – in only slightly modified circumstances – have happened to them.

Some might argue that the horse-meat scandal is little more than a storm in a tea-cup, got up by the media. After all, no one died and no one is likely to: horse meat is eagerly consumed all over the globe, from Kazakstan to Argentina, as a tasty substitute for the tougher, stringier beef that can be bought for about the same price. Indeed, there’s not a little hypocrisy in this country about the cultural taboo surrounding horse meat. Until about 100 years ago, the Brits themselves were avid consumers of the stuff. Only more recently have we developed the refinement of conscience that prohibits national consumption, while allowing us to send up to 10,000 nags a year to specialist abattoirs, there to be despatched for the perverted pleasure of less civilised foreigners.

Alas, the ramifications of this affair go somewhat deeper. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of horse meat (and elements of pork), those eagle-eyed  inspectors at the Irish Food Standards Agency (FSAI) had found the minutest traces of human DNA. The uncontainable revulsion – far from affecting a few animal lovers, Muslims and Jews – would be universal. An official inquiry would, there and then, be instituted into how these three wise monkeys – the suppliers, the retailers and the regulator – had, through cavalier negligence and the unobstructed pursuit of greed, been allowed to corrupt the integrity of the food chain. Because, make no mistake, this little cock-up is all about money. The burgers most tainted were those from so-called “value” products where the cost of ingredients is at all times under pressure. Retailers want to satisfy their customers with the lowest possible prices consistent with food safety regulations. The suppliers – browbeaten by the retailers – seek low-cost substitutes (in this case from the less  punctilious Netherlands and Spain, where the consumption of horse meat is legal). And the UK regulator takes a passive, compliant attitude to anything that is outside its immediate remit (no conceivable threat to health, so why bother with DNA tests?), suggesting a “lite-touch” relationship that is too cosy with the industry it is supposed to govern.

It makes you wonder why the FSAI could be bothered with such tests, but the UK’s FSA could not. Or indeed, why the retailers didn’t carry out such DNA tests themselves. After all, it’s their brand reputation which is going through the mincer because they have not.

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McDonald’s – the brand the world loves to hate

January 9, 2012

Just lovin’ it? You may be, but you can bet they aren’t. No matter how hard it tries, the world’s biggest restaurant chain by revenue simply can’t strike the appropriate note in its advertising campaigns. In place of plaudits, it invariably earns brickbats.

Now why is that I wonder? Well it’s not the calibre of its marketing people that is the problem. Compared with most global corporations, and certainly most international retailers, McDonald’s puts great store by talent. It attracts people like Jill McDonald, UK CEO and a shoo-in Marketer of the Year in most annual polls. Again against the grain, McDonald’s believes in advertising creativity. Can you remember who does Wal-Mart’s advertising? Neither can I. But I do recall that McDonald’s has retained, in turn, Leo Burnett and DDB.

Here’s DDB’s latest US offering. It’s an apparently inoffensive slice of life campaign, featuring farmers who supply McDonald’s with their beef, potatoes and lettuces. It won’t win any creative prizes, but it’s professionally produced and does a job in stressing an increasingly important element in consumer decision-making: the integrity of provenance.

Pulse and respiration still normal? I’m surprised. Because these ads have created near apoplexy in the USA. Apparently, it’s not what they say (which appears to be accurate enough) but what they leave out that should shock us to the marrow. By means of soft, bucolic imagery, McDonald’s has fooled us into believing it is part of a “farm to fork” movement transporting wholesome vegetables and prime beef cuts directly to our local fast-food outlet. Whilst – wouldn’t you just know it – skilfully omitting all mention of the wicked middle-man who, by perverted alchemy, buys up all this wholesome produce and slices and dices it into the fatty fries and bloating burgers that we more naturally associate with McDonald’s. A case not so much of Golden Arches as Arch Hypocrite.

Far be it from me to defend the fast-food industry, but isn’t this criticism a little harsh? Not, it seems, when the ad campaign emanates from The Great Satan – seducer of little children, agent of obesity and chief representative of all that is most reprehensible about international capitalism.

Given such an unsavoury reputation, you might think McDonald’s on safer ground with this lightly amusing piece of comparative advertising, which pokes fun at its rival Burger King. Small boy in a playground despairs of ever tasting his beloved McD Fries because they always end up being filched by his bigger brethren. Then he hits upon a novel and successful stratagem: hide them behind a BK bag, and nobody will ever want to eat them –

The ad – not unreasonably – won a bronze in the recent Epica Awards. But maybe because it was produced in Germany, it also created a major sense of humour loss, which resulted in humiliating retraction:

“McDonald’s has broken the rules of comparative advertising by degrading the Burger King brand in the TV commercial ‘Packaging.’ McDonald’s and Burger King have agreed that [the spot’s] distribution and broadcast … will be stopped,” said a statement from Burger King.

Apparently, the agencies responsible for the ad, Tribal DDB and Heye & Partners, had put it out on the web without seeking permission from their client. It has since attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube.

At least McDonald’s is popular with someone.


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