As Tesco Grapples With Mystery Meat, Public Confidence Hangs in the Balance

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Earlier this month, British grocer Tesco happily announced its “strongest sales growth since 2010.” But that was before the horse meat showed up.

Now the UK’s largest grocery chain is reeling after Irish government tests revealed horse and pig DNA in the meat products of Tesco, along with other supermarkets. “In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horse meat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger,” said the agency’s chief, Alan Reilly.

The question is how fast and how completely the company can move to control the damage and address customer skepticism. Its latest marketing efforts — which include a push for its fresh soups and baby-care products — rely deeply on consumer trust. And unfortunately, the soup campaign goes out of its way to emphasize the farm-to-table concept – something Tesco customers probably don’t want to think too hard about right now.[more]
As the news broke Tuesday, Tesco issued an apology while pulling all the items from the supplier in question. “We are working with the authorities in Ireland and the UK, and with the supplier concerned, to urgently understand how this has happened and how to ensure it does not happen again,” the company said. “The presence of illegal meat in our products is extremely serious.”

But questions abounded Wednesday as outrage spread. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament he found the meat scandal “a completely unacceptable state of affairs” and called for his own country to investigate.

Guardian business columnist Nils Pratley noted that Tesco has operated from a relatively standard playbook so far — one that could not address the psychological unease created by the scandal.

The market “has said there are only two possibilities: illegality on the part of its suppliers, or their suppliers, or gross negligence,” Pratley said. “But the question he cannot answer is how long it’s been going on. Shoppers will wonder what else the company doesn’t know about the meat it sells and ask whether its boasts about regular audits of suppliers mean anything.”

John Mahony, who leads the consultancy ReputationInc., told Pratley he believes Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke may need to appear publicly in order to emphasize that the company’s top leaders are addressing the issue.

Tesco is not the only retailer affected by the Irish inspections. Officials “found traces of pig DNA in 85 percent of the burger products it tested in Irish supermarkets, including those operated by British frozen food specialist Iceland, German discounters Lidl and Aldi, and supermarket giant Spar,” the Associated Press reported. Some Irish stores, including the nation’s largest domestically owned supermarket chain, Dunnes, also had beef that tested positive for horse or pig DNA.

Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer, had made a five-year foray into the U.S. market under the Fresh & Easy banner, but announced in December it would close its 200 stores in California and Nevada. 

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