Horse Meat Saga - Crisis Planning Key to Unbridled Disaster

The need for crisis management has never been greater for the food industry. So what does the current horse meat debacle tell us about the right and wrong ways to tackle crisis management?

The horsemeat saga continues unabated with those embroiled in this crisis passing the blame like it was an Olympic torch relay - it's gone from supermarkets, food manufacturers, the Food Standard Agency and has now passed onto our schools. Where the torch stops next is anyone's guess.

I'll be honest and say that when the news first broke that horse 'DNA' had been discovered in burgers my first reaction was quite dismissive. Personally I have dined at some very 'interesting' places around the world and eaten some questionable looking chicken legs! But of course as the news broke that 100 per cent horsemeat was found in some processed foods I began to take the incident more seriously.

As a business continuity professional I take a keen interest in how this crisis is playing out. I'm looking to see how the companies and organisations involved respond to the headlines and the stories which are played out on our screens daily.

The reason this is such a big story is that the public feel betrayed - we have been lied to by a food industry which we expect to trust. As household budgets are squeezed retailers have focused on meeting our needs by providing a 'value range' which is focused on price and not quality. How is it that these same retailers can tell me where the grape was grown for my wine or where their best sirloin steaks were reared, but can't tell me where the meat in my beef burgers or lasagne comes from? As price is driven down the quality (and the quality checking) is driven down with it.

The sorry saga has been made worse by an industry - with a few notable exceptions - that has failed to explain or apologise for what has happened in our food chain.

When faced with a crisis it is difficult not to react with fear and/or anxiety. The size and speed of an event can sometimes overwhelm us and paralyse so that we fail to react appropriately. But the large organisations and businesses involved in the horsemeat story have no excuses - they should have been prepared and planned.

I often hear people tell me that they have disaster recovery (DR) plans for their IT systems so they're 'OK' when it comes to business continuity. However, the lesson we need to learn from this current crisis is that an IT DR plan will not help you unless it's an IT problem! Business leaders need to lead from the front in a crisis - and that means crisis management training as part of business continuity planning.

The need for crisis management has never been greater for the food industry. So what does the current horse meat debacle tell us about the right and wrong ways to tackle crisis management?

The right way

Some companies like Tesco initially responded very well and immediately invoked their crisis management plans and initiated a product recall process. Full page adverts appeared in the press and the Tesco website was updated to explain what had happened and what they were doing about it. Fantastic and just what is expected from a supermarket giant.

What they did was simple and every business should learn from these steps

•Recognise the problem

•Be honest

•Take prompt and decisive action

•Tell your customers what actions you're taking

•Keep your customers informed

In the background you can investigate who is to blame etc but initially managing the crisis rather than allowing the crisis to manage you, is key.

The wrong way

With new revelations hitting the media headlines daily, frozen food giant Findus became embroiled in the scandal when it was discovered that they had known for 12 days that some of their products contained 100 per cent horsemeat. However, it took them another seven days to inform stores and pull the product from supermarket shelves. Where did they go wrong?

•They failed to recognise size of the problem

•Kept quiet

•Slow to react

•Didn't tell anyone until forced to

•Are now threatening lawsuits with their third-party provider for breaches of contract

The very fact that they took seven days to inform stores tells me that their crisis management teams simply weren't prepared for this event. This is surprising as a food manufacturer could easily foresee the possibility of a product recall and should have a full page dedicated to such a scenario in their business continuity plan.

What are the lessons from this crisis?

•Have a senior crisis management team plan

•Train your senior crisis management team

•Get to grips with social media and make it a part of your crisis management processes

•Ensure crisis management is part of your overall business continuity management process

•Audit, investigate and review your suppliers and providers of service. Ignorance is not a defence!

Where will it end?

This story is set to run and run. Where it ends no one can fully predict but I suspect a raft of new legislations will be brought in, someone will resign, some companies will change their company name, others will take a hit on profits (for a while) and consumers will continue to buy cheap 'value products'.

But when things do return to normal (and they will) I hope that lessons will be learnt on how to respond to a crisis effectively. What actions to take and how to keep the public informed. It's not rocket science - it's common sense. The public hates to feel it has been made a fool of and it is the feeling that we have been lied to that is the greatest concern for many.

My only surprise in this entire sorry saga is that businesses like Quorn haven't stepped up and made more of the crisis in their advertising campaign. The meat-free provider had an advertisement running which read "Contains 80% less fat than traditional beef." They could have added "And 100% less horse!" But maybe that joke is just too soon?

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