Why the Horse Meat Scandal should be a Wake up Call to All Brands

Over the last few weeks, the horse meat scandal has dominated media channels, and it is clear that some dark secrets are about to be uncovered in the world of food suppliers. So it is no surprise that 9 in 10 consumers responding to the Marketing Sciences research that we conducted this weekend are aware of the scandal. With new revelations unfolding each day, involving new products and brands (and now different meats), we decided to gauge the consumer viewpoint on this hot topic.

We interviewed 2,002 UK consumers this weekend and uncovered some fascinating results that we think all retailers, food brands and manufacturers need to be aware of.

Worryingly for the incriminated brands, 50% of consumers say they will avoid buying any products from brands involved in the horse meat scandal. Whilst this may be a little bit of a knee jerk reaction from consumers, it is clear that brands (and associated supplier & retailers) will need to pay attention, or risk alienating a large section of their markets.

Blame has been a central issue during the horse meat scandal debate; 3 in 4 consumers pinpoint the supplier as the source of fault. However, 83% of consumers also said that brands should take responsibility for the products they sell. Therefore, it would seem that no one in the chain from source to retailer has avoided blame.

The impact of this scandal spreads wider than the brands involved, to an impact on British lifestyles; our research revealed that 1 in 10 consumers would go so far as to consider giving up meat as a result of the scandal (excluding those who already eat a meat-free diet). If this transferred into action, it could more than double the vegetarian proportion of the British population, something that vegetarian brands should be thinking about carefully.

Although our research did not delve past the private sector, media attention has drawn attention to government and FSA negligence. For example, an article in The Guardian pinpointed that government cuts to funding and a stripping of responsibility for the FSA had “fostered” an environment which would allow the development of the horse meat scandal (The Guardian, 18th January 2013). Unlike previous media ‘scandals’, 2 in 3 respondents did not think the scandal had been exaggerated by the media; this may emphasise consumers believe the scandal is as dramatic as is presented.

But … it’s not all doom and gloom.

Our research uncovered a divided nation. 20% of consumers don’t mind if horse meat is in the meat products they buy; this number increases by 35% if the horse meat is listed on the ingredients. This may indicate that for a small majority, it may not be the horse meat itself but the deceit by not listing on the ingredients which means they lack trust in future meat purchases (all about informed choice).

But what we find really interesting is the difference between male and female consumers; where typical gender stereotypes are displayed. Male consumers have significantly less concern for eating horse meat, whether labelled on the ingredients or not. On the contrary, female consumers are significantly more likely to say they will avoid buying any products from the brands involved; in addition females are significantly more likely to consider giving up meat totally as a result of the scandal.

Overall, the horse meat scandal should serve as a wakeup call to brands, retailers and suppliers alike. The consumers are demanding trust, honesty and transparency from their meat purchases more so than ever; this principle is not limited to the meat sector and is a lesson for retail as a whole. One type of retailer already fulfilling this demand is the traditional butchers, who have seen a growth in sales since the unveiling of the scandal; consumers may be beginning to understand that cheap meat is a result of cutting corners and thus may be willing to pay more for an honest product.

It looks like we still have a long journey before the horse meat scandal is laid to rest (as indicated in the BBC report this morning). Personally, I am just glad to lead a vegetarian lifestyle at this time of uncertainty!

Figures based on a sample of 2,002 UK Adults interviewed on the Marketing Sciences Omnibus (8th-10th Feb 2013).

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Becca Allen
01962 842211
Article date - 13/02/2013
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