April, 1996

Fruits of Thought

Of Mad Cows And Walking Tightropes

Some scientists suspect that 10 Britons have contracted a horrible brain disease by eating meat from British raised cattle infected with “mad cow disease” or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. As a result, the British government had to withdraw its previous assurance that BSE, which as been common in Britain for a decade, is not a threat to human begins.

This created a crisis of consumer confidence which led consumers to stop buying beef in Britain. As a result, major fast food chains, such as the British operations of McDonalds and Wendy’s stopped selling British beef. The European Community banned the export of British beef, which was probably overkill because nobody was prepared to buy it anyway.

This all left the British government reeling as they contemplated a number of unpleasant options ranging from doing nothing and letting the chips fall where they may, to ordering the slaughter of every cow in Britain and starting afresh with imported livestock.

For the produce industry in the United States, this all may seem kind of far away. There is no threat on the horizon of anything remotely similar to this situation in Britain. And yet…

The U.S. produce industry can learn from the predicament facing the British beef business. If nothing else we should be reminded of exactly how fragile consumer confidence is toward our products. And how very unforgiving public attitudes can be. After all, the truth is that nobody really knows if anyone has gotten a disease from eating British beef and, even if they did, new safeguards were imposed several years ago in Britain and, therefore, today’s beef should be safe.

Yet, I do understand the reaction. Because, truth be told, if I was visiting Britain right now, I would find other things to eat than British beef. Why take chances?

There are some lessons we might learn, as an industry, from the British example, but they are thin gruel. One thought is that the situation indicates the advantages of private branding. When Jack-in-the-Box had the horrible situation with the E. coli bacteria, which caused a child’s death, the sales collapsed. It was, however, sales at Jack-in-the-Box that collapsed, not all beef sales, or hamburger sales or even all fast food chain sales. Even now, with the British beef situation, it is interesting to note that there are no signs that U.S. beef consumption is being affected. It seems like the use of a private brand, as in Jack-in-the-Box, or a regional appellation, as in British beef, gives consumers the ability to make distinctions. As a result, in promoting an industry as a whole, we may make it more vulnerable to consumer concerns over any individual incident involving food safety.

Another point is that the British beef industry was woefully ill-prepared to deal with a highly predictable event. It was known that scientists were studying this subject and that an announcement would be forthcoming. Yet the trade did not have an effective and timely response prepared. This meant that the news media, especially during the crucial first few hours following the announcement, gave an incomplete picture of all the facts. So, certainly, being better prepared is a lesson we should never forget.

In the end, however, the lessons are of limited use because the bottom line is how little tolerance there is among the general public for risk in the food supply. During most occasions, the risk is ignored. But when an event causes it to surface, we cannot, as an industry, expect reasoned or measured responses. We can expect a zero tolerance attitude and de facto consumer boycotts.

Growers and shippers also can see how little they can count on their “marketing partners” to attempt to change consumer attitudes. The fast food chains dropped their British beef suppliers like…well, a hot potato. These chains perceive their function as meeting consumer demand more than building it. As a result, once consumer sentiment changed, the chains’ procurement and merchandising strategies changed as well.

As I write this the British authorities are wrestling with various solutions to rebuild consumer confidence. British cattle interests have put together a plan to slaughter older cattle which might be more likely to have this disease. Others are demanding a complete slaughter of British cattle. Both options will cost billions of dollars. My own sense is they have little choice but to eliminate the whole British industry and start again. Only that kind of action will renew confidence.

I am not sure the science really supports a solution estimated to cost over $9 billion. I am not sure the risk is that great. On the other hand, who is going to buy British beef if the British won’t? After all, the fast feeders reacted to their customers’ concerns. The greatest asset of the food industry is consumer confidence. It is what makes our modern food distribution system work. Consumer confidence is, in a sense, priceless.

When the cattle go to slaughter I will watch the pictures on T.V. and realize it very well could one day be a product that hits closer to home. I’m not sure there is a lot we can do to ready ourselves against that day but it may be wise to remember what a thin line we walk. Today’s favorite, healthful food can be turned, overnight, into a hazard to be avoided. The thought concentrates the mind.  pb