15/01/2014 12:22 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Legacy of Horsemeat Scandal Hangs Over Food Industry

George Bernard Shaw once said, "Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time." One year on from the horsemeat scandal and the food industry is in danger of doing exactly that.

At the height of the scandal in January 2013, mountains of copy were written about the processes and supply chain issues within the European food industry. Conspicuous by its absence was information about what the food industry, particularly meat producers, was doing to improve its reputation beyond direct relationships with supermarket buyers.

A year after it was first reported that horse DNA had been discovered in frozen beefburgers, little has changed on the reputation front. Many producers, particularly those white-labelling for supermarkets, are still anonymous. They question why they should raise their heads "above the parapet" if they are not consumer facing. In doing so, they are leaving the industry exposed, and failing to learn the lessons of why the horsemeat scandal did so much damage.

New research, commissioned by Hanover Communications and conducted by Populus, has shown that over half (56%) of the 2,011 British adults surveyed think further scandals similar to horsemeat will happen in the near future. Worryingly for the wider industry, nearly half (47%) think food today isn't as well made as it used to be, and 42% worry more about the quality of the food than they did before the horsemeat scandal. Over half (53%) say they are more suspicious of what's inside discounted food, a similar number (52%) are more suspicious of less well-known brands.

This underlying concern is not new and undoubtedly exacerbated the situation a year ago. The food industry has failed to communicate the good work it does within sourcing, sustainability and welfare. As a result, it lacks a narrative that proactively tells a story to its benefit.

The benefits of telling its story are clear. Fifty-three per cent of adults would be more confident about buying meat if the packaging tells them about the producer behind the product. The majority of those questioned would be more confident about food products if they were subject to a pledge that:

  • The entire supply chain could be traced to ensure no contamination (66%)
  • All meat sold in store was from independently certified sustainable sources (62%)
  • All meat in store was sourced from the UK (59%)
  • All meat sold in store was sourced locally (59%)

Similarly, while 51% felt that, in general, the food industry had responded well to the horsemeat scandal, the public clearly want to see more done by food producers to raise their own reputations, with:

  • 68% feeling more confident if they knew where their food was sourced.
  • 61% feeling more confident if they knew how livestock were treated.
  • 34% feeling more confident if the producers were involved in community projects and other CSR initiatives.
  • 21% feeling more confident about purchasing products if they could name the CEO of the producer.

The research is very clear; it's one thing to fix the supply chain processes that led to this scandal, but to truly move on from the mistakes of a year ago, the food industry must ensure its reputation is never left exposed again.

And while the legacy of the horsemeat scandal still hangs over the food industry, people think positively about British producers, with 55% seeing buying British as the benchmark of quality. This provides a huge opportunity for producers to do more to raise their reputation and communicate the high standards they practice.

Our research clearly shows the public want to know more about producers, even those who are not consumer facing. It makes business sense for producers to get on the front foot and start building a positive, proactive narrative that tells a story they can be proud of and builds reputational insulation.