With this week’s lifting of the 1996 ban on exporting British beef,
the UK meat marketing industry is turning its energies to the task of
restoring consumer confidence in its products at home and abroad.
Reduced sales in its home market and the ban on exports have cost the
UK’s meat and livestock industry an estimated pounds 520 million. A
survey last month indicated UK household consumption has fallen 14 per
cent since 1995.
The BSE crisis has not simply affected sales of beef. The Meat and
Livestock Commission (MLC), the lead organisation for marketing British
red meat worldwide, has also had to deal with evidence that BSE has
With an estimated six months to go before the lifting of the ban comes
into effect, the meat industry is shifting its strategy from crisis
management to considering how to target consumers.
Last week, the MLC announced it was reviewing its lobbying and corporate
and crisis PR accounts, held by Shandwick and Bell Pottinger
Now that lobbying to lift the ban has succeeded, the commission is
likely to take the cost-saving move of consolidating its account with
The commission has not decided yet whether to recruit a consumer PR
agency to help restore beef sales to their pre-scare levels, but over
the past year it has been busy preparing the ground for a marketing
drive. Promotional activity to date has been focused largely on key
opinion-formers, rather than targeted directly at the consumer.
Nicky O’Reilly, head of corporate communications at the MLC, explains:
’We are working with international journalists to get the message out
that there is a change in the standard of British meat. We have taken UK
scientists abroad to talk to different people; we most recently went
with Nick Brown and the British ambassador to speak to the Spanish
agricultural minister. In short, we are trying to influence the
industry, the media, government and consumer organisations to get
Within the UK, the MLC has also toured schools and local authorities in
an effort to convince them that British meat is safe.
But no amount of lobbying or wooing of journalists could have restored
confidence without proof that safety standards were being improved. To
this end, in 1997, the commission and the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food established the certification agency, Assured British
Made up of industry and consumer representatives, the agency will ensure
that minimum standards for the production of beef for sale to retailers
and caterers have been met, in exchange for which it will award its kite
ABM hopes to set up the kitemark system by the end of 1999 and it will
be used by all participating retailers. Standards cover all stages of
production from feeding to farming and slaughter, and will build on the
existing passport system that details the genealogy of animals, enabling
diseases to be traced. So far, 80 per cent of farmers and retailers have
But moves to create a more independent, wide-ranging and powerful safety
body have been thwarted. Proposals to set up a Food Standards Agency
were dropped from last month’s Queen’s speech, and so are unlikely to be
implemented in the next year.
The focus of the campaign on the Continent, and at home, will continue
to be safety.
Jon McLeod, public affairs director at Shandwick, says: ’We hope that
there is a residue of goodwill in the European market. But people that
are genuinely fearful are probably irredeemably so. Our objective, and
the objective of British meat, is to give assurance that all safety
measures are in place.’
The first tentative signs of recovery have begun to appear over the past
year. Sales of red meat have risen by five per cent in the UK since
1997, although the reasons for this could be scare fatigue and the
temptation of low prices as much as a new confidence in meat safety. In
fact the commission has very little information about what consumer
attitudes to beef are, particularly on the Continent.
Before designing its consumer PR strategy, the commission will have to
gauge the likely public reaction to any consumer campaign.
’We are researching current attitudes and when we discover what customer
concerns actually are we will start,’ says O’Reilly. ’Of course, we
cannot expect the previous markets to simply open the doors for us
straight away,’ she adds. ’We know that in certain countries, like
Germany, we still have a challenge, but our suppliers in Europe have not
abandoned us, especially those in France and Italy, where we had our
biggest export markets.’
At this stage there is an unnerving level of uncertainty about consumer
reactions in international markets towards the resumption of British
beef exports. And, while significant work has been carried out in terms
of establishing safety measures and communicating these to opinion
formers and media, it is only in the UK that any kind of grassroots work
has been undertaken.
The research into consumer attitudes now commissioned is not before
time, and it is only these results that will allow the commission to
formulate any reasonable strategy.
Simon Rayner, PR manager at farming lobby group the National Farmers
Union, suggests that it might be helpful to bring in a consumer
specialist agency. Indeed, having spent so long with its sights fixed on
the EU, the MLC, and any PR agency it appoints, now needs to get to
grips with the fact that consumer fears are often less than
Any consumer campaign will need to address these anxieties at a very