News Analysis: How did the food giants cope?

The Sudan 1 scare triggered a classic emergency planning scenario for food firms. Ian Hall charts how the affected parties have managed the PR fallout.

By the time the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that an astonishing 359 products containing an illegal dye were to be pulled from Britain's supermarkets, affected companies were already working round the clock to minimise consumer panic and reputational damage.

The major supermarket chains had spent the previous 72 hours in internal comms overdrive regarding banned cancer-causing dye Sudan 1.

Of the supermarkets, Sainsbury's was most linked by the print media with the recall. It featured in 86 articles in the five days after the story broke, according to Presswatch Media (PRWeek, 25 February). Waitrose (82 articles), Morrisons (77), Asda (74), Tesco (62) and Somerfield (50) also featured heavily, with own-label and branded goods being withdrawn.

Infrastructure in place

The recall has drawn attention to the infrastructure that firms have in place to deal with a crisis of this magnitude - and the role PROs have in emergency planning procedures.

Sainsbury's has a serious-incident committee (which includes around a dozen staff from across the business, including PR) as part of its 'business continuity' operations. It first met to discuss Sudan 1 on 15 February; the next day, store managers were emailed with information on what to do, and products started to be withdrawn.

By 18 February - when the FSA made its announcement on the first batch of contaminated products (and 11 days after the watchdog was notified by supplier Premier Foods of the problem) - Sainsbury's had pulled all affected lines. Media calls piled in to the PR department that afternoon, says press office head Gillian Taylor. She reveals the firm had already put a Q&A section on its website and ensured in-store customer services staff could keep shoppers abreast of what was safe to put into their trolleys.

Other supermarkets had similar procedures in place. Waitrose media and comms manager Gill Smith says: 'Branches were sent information by email to allow them to respond to customer queries. Lists of affected products and relevant use-by dates were made available to our customers and placed on our website so they could check freezers and store cupboards for affected items.'

At Tesco, its trading law and technical department became aware of the Sudan 1 problem on 14 February, reports external comms manager John Church. Like Sainsbury's, Tesco's crisis response procedures involve meetings between a cross-functional team, including a PRO, to ensure all links in the chain are kept abreast of how the company is dealing with a problem.

By 18 February, when the phones in Tesco's press office in Hertfordshire started to buzz with journalists, the PR team had messages of consumer reassurance ready to go. 'There is always a lot of broadcast media interest in this sort of story - they want pictures of shelves being emptied,' says Church. 'But supply chains are now so integrated that as soon as we take a product off, a reformulated one is able to take its place almost instantly.'

Each supermarket stresses how modern comms technology, and the increasingly sophisticated emergency planning structures, enabled replacement products to reach shelves before consumers even became aware of the problem.

But Britain's smaller grocers have less sophisticated information channels and have been reliant on bodies such as the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) to keep them informed.

FSA issues online updates

On 18 February the FSA placed a list, since updated daily, on its website showing which products need to be recalled. Hits had reached 15 million per day by 21 February, it reports.

The body has, however, been criticised for waiting too long to make a public announcement after being contacted by Premier on 7 February, with Tory shadow health minister Chris Grayling saying it 'acted very slowly'.

The FSA rejects this, saying it acted as swiftly as it could; it also points out that it is the companies themselves that have the legal responsibility to contact their customers - not the FSA.

Last weekend's press saw the FSA's chairman Sir John Krebs argue that the biggest casualty of the Sudan 1 recall could be a broader loss of public trust in the food industry overall.

Citigate Dewe Rogerson, which has been advising Premier, failed to return PRWeek's calls. Elaine Watson, deputy news editor at The Grocer, says: 'After a few initial comments, Premier seems to have gone to ground.'

She adds: 'A lot of the smaller suppliers have probably received legal advice - and PR advice if they are large enough - to keep quiet in case they set themselves up for insurance claims.'

Damage limitation

And what is the challenge now for those brands affected by the scare?

Shirley Braithwaite, joint managing director at b2b Communications, which works for various food and drink clients, says: 'We need to gather and issue accurate information quickly, but as Sudan 1 demonstrates, tracking a product through the food chain, identifying associated products and establishing their locations takes time. A week later, more brands were still being added to the recall list.'

She adds: 'This creates confusion and undermines confidence in the recall process and the brands involved, generates negative media coverage and keeps the issue in the headlines.'

But Nexus Communications creative and planning director Alan Twigg, who works for a range of food clients, has been impressed by the media coverage. 'The media have generally reported with their "public-information hat" on,' he says.

'Reports have been even-handed when there was a potential for scaremongering, and the food firms have been professional in the way they've handled it.'

Watson points out that Premier could benefit from the fact that most shoppers do not associate it with the scandal, given that the main Premier brand affected that consumers would recognise is Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce, which accounts for a tiny proportion of its sales.

But what is less clear is the longer-term impact this could have on Premier's reputation in the trade. Broader consumer confidence in the safety of Britain's food, already damaged by previous crises such as BSE, is also likely to take a hit.

The consensus is that robust - and quick - communications within each affected firm's supply chain has minimised the fallout of Sudan 1.

But with insurance claims of up to £100m being discussed, the consequences for the likes of Premier and the FSA will remain unresolved for a good while yet.

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