Opinion: Sudan 1 flags up PR risks in supply chain

For PROs working for supermarkets - not to mention food and drink manufacturers - there was really only one story last weekend. And having already coped with the extraordinary logistical inconvenience of removing around 350 mainstream products from their shelves, supermarkets are now facing the somewhat bitter news that they could face fines for 'selling food injurious to the public health' and having failed to carry out more stringent tests for traces of the carcinogenic dye Sudan 1.

Leaving aside the issue of veracity of tests or otherwise, I wouldn't blame any PRO working at one of the affected supermarkets for feeling cheesed off. It would have taken almost an act of clairvoyance for a PRO to see this problem coming so far down the supply chain.

It is a sign of the times that Sudan 1 could have entered the food chain from a remote source - believed to be a contaminated five-ton batch of red chilli that was exported from India in 2002 - and have emerged as a PR problem on the shelves of supermarkets three years later. Between these two points lies a complex web of suppliers including Premier Foods, which used the chilli in its Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce, which was then used for branded and own-brand supermarket ready meals and products such as soup.

This may well prove to be the largest food recall in British history, and the fact is that such a lengthy chain of suppliers is far from unusual in any global industry these days. But while global sourcing continues to expand, controls over such sources struggle to keep pace.

I was reminded of recent BBC4 documentary Made in China in which a film crew followed a Nokia ethical consultant as she tried to impose the firm's CSR standards on a Chinese supplier. The Chinese managers greeted her attempts to separate drinking utensils from dangerous chemicals, for example, as quaint and rather amusing at first, but when the team began to suggest that staff should be paid the minimum wage, the smiles disappeared.

The programme provided a fascinating insight into the difficulties of imposing EU standards and values on a global supply chain. Yet despite these difficulties, PROs are rarely involved in issues regarding sourcing, or encouraged to liaise with the PR teams of supplier companies.

In the main, it is a question of resources that prevent departments from involving themselves in supply issues. But as corporate comms directors become more involved in handling their firm's CSR policies in particular, it places PROs in an uncomfortable, if not impossible, position.

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