Likening the horse meat scandal to a rain of manure that just continues to fall, the head of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland outlined lessons learned during the crisis for industry and regulators at the FoodRisC conference in Brussels on Thursday.
FSAI executive director Alan Reilly recounted his experience of the horse meat scandal in vivid detail during the conference, which marked the end of the three-and-a-half-year EU-funded FoodRisC project, intended to investigate communication of food issues to better inform the public.
Reilly said the agency started working on an authenticity report for beef products in November last year. It had seen that all the elements were lining up for potential fraud, including skyrocketing prices for beef in Europe, meaning that criminal adulteration had become very appealing. The agency’s hunch was right; the testing uncovered horse meat DNA in beef products.
“We were going to destroy the reputation of Ireland in beef products. That was the way I was looking at it,” he said.
“Within eight days the problem had spread right across Europe and as far afield as Asia, the Caribbean and Russia.”
By the time all the test results came back, ten per cent of beef products tested in France were found to contain more than 1% horse meat, and across Europe, about 5% contained some horse.
“Within the first few hours, regulators, manufacturers, politicians and the media had gone from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in just a heartbeat. In the first couple of days communication was in turmoil. As for sleep, you could forget about going home… Our job was to stop the spin.”
He added: “It is still going on and bubbling away in the background…The horse meat scandal was not about safety. It was about emotions. Consumers were afraid and angry.”
However, the FSAI was well-placed to deal with public fears, Reilly said, having built up consumer trust through its communications outside of times of crisis.
“Fact and fiction ran neck and neck for months, and it taught us a lesson in terms of communication…You need to build up that relationship with journalists in advance to enable that communication,” he said. “People were believing the messages that we were putting out, which was really very useful.”
Yet that was not something he observed of industry.
“One of the things about industry during the horsemeat incident is that industry is not on the pitch communicating with consumers on a regular basis. If you are only communicating with consumers during a crisis you have already lost half the battle.
“What we are learning from horse meat is that we have to be communicating from the front.”
The sun never sets on a scandal
The crisis was also the first time that the FSAI aimed to use social media to its full potential, using Twitter and Facebook accounts to communicate with consumers and industry.
“I didn’t know what ‘trending’ meant until someone showed me. It was going so fast,” he said. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
He added: “The power of social media is that just by pressing one button you can disseminate truth or lies to millions. It is always morning somewhere in the world and all around the world people were waking up to horse meat as the top story...There is no free space when you are dealing with a global media.
“The headlines got more stark and this was frightening because we were looking at our industry going down the tubes with every headline.
“This is the first time this had happened to us, where we had 500% more calls from journalists than the public. The public did call and tell us jokes, but journalists wanted the story.”
Overall, Reilly’s message was that the next crisis could be around the corner. No one knows what it could be, so it is worth trying to build trust with consumers and the media before it happens.
“Don’t allow that communication vacuum to develop, because you might not be happy with those who come along to fill it,” he said.