Approach to crisis management: protecting a global brand

In late 2012 the food safety authorities in Ireland detected horsemeat in beefburgers, and soon afterwards horsemeat was found in other products sold as beef in Ireland and the UK.

Findus in France was contacted in January 2013 by Eurofins, an organisation known to Findus, which specialises in innovative controls and analytical methodologies for food products. Findus was initially completely incredulous when Eurofins announced that it had detected horsemeat in Findus frozen beef lasagne, and Findus remained sceptical when Eurofins stated that its findings were based on DNA analysis. At the time, horsemeat was hardly cheaper than beef in France so there was little financial incentive to sneak it into products, and in addition Findus considered that it had its supply chain under complete control. But internal tests by the company confirmed Eurofins assertion, and Findus went into crisis management mode. Stock was put on hold, confirmatory analyses were done and the authorities were informed. DNA tests showed that not all the lots from the subcontractor making the ready-meals contained horse, but the meat in those that did came from a single wholesale supplier called Spanghero.

Spanghero was uncooperative when Findus went to see them, pointing out that Findus was not a direct customer. By that time it was known that the horsemeat originated in Romania, so Findus was faced with the question of how Romanian horsemeat got into products whose only meat content was supposed to be French beef. The authorities declared that it was a labelling problem for Findus to tackle, because there was no public health hazard. The company thought that with product withdrawals and communication to the consumers the matter was settled, but the British and French media thought otherwise and in February embarked on a wave of what Findus felt to be very aggressive reporting. The company responded with communications to the authorities, customers and the Findus employees, who were understandably worried. It transpired that the Romanians had exported clearly and correctly labelled horsemeat to a Dutch company called Draap, which had relabelled it as beef before selling it on. The former head of Draap is now in prison.

Findus asked Eurofins to ensure that all its products stated to contain beef actually did so. Now The company subjects all animal protein raw materials to DNA tests by an independent laboratory, then has a similar test done on the finished products, and only if the test results are positive are the products released. The data is posted on a website, and there is also a mobile phone app which calls up the Eurofins certificate for a given product when it reads the code on the packaging. In addition to these measures, Findus conducts unannounced inspections and controls on suppliers. The aim is to achieve the greatest possible transparency with regard to the complex supply chain. So the safeguards are in place and an event like that of 2013 unlikely. If something similar should nevertheless occur, Findus would exercise initial caution with regard to communication, having had the experience that communicating too much in an unclear situation provoked a severe media reaction. Appropriate media, like advertisers, can be employed to speak with the consumers, and when the situation has been clarified, a full explanation can be put out.

Summary of Christophe Guillon's speach at the Centre's Food safety event in October 2016. Guillon is Operations Director at Findus Southern Europe. Summary written by Jeffrey Barnes.