Consumer response to horse meat contamination
On 15th January 2013 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced the findings of their investigation into the authenticity of meat products on the Irish market. In testing 27 beef burger products, 10 had tested positive for horse DNA and 23 had tested positive for pig DNA. Most of the burgers were found to have very low levels of DNA, however one burger product was found to contain 29% horse DNA. The contaminated products were traced back to 3 food producers: 2 in Ireland and 1 in the UK. A number of retailers in Ireland and in the UK, including Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes Stores, and Iceland, removed all the beef burger products in question from the market.
On 28th January, the FSAI announced that the source of the contamination had been traced back to raw materials used in Poland. The FSAI communications stressed that there was no health risk. Widespread media attention within Ireland and the UK focused on issues such as traceability, labelling, and reputational risks to Ireland’s beef industry.
VIZZATA was used to investigate what questions and concerns consumers might have about the incident and find out what they thought of the official statements that had been released. 44 consumers from the UK and Ireland were presented with the initial press releases of the food safety agencies in Ireland and the UK, media reports and the public apology from Tesco, one of the retailers involved. The respondents had the opportunity to ask questions and make comments about the presented information, had material provided in response to their questions and then returned to the study to make further reflections.
Results showed that consumers were mainly concerned that the claims on labels did not match the contents of the products. There was very little evidence of concern about health risks – although some wondered how government assurances about safety could be so conclusive given that the discovery of horsemeat was completely unexpected.
There were a lot of questions about the testing process. Consumers wanted to know whether the tests were routine and if not, what prompted them. “How often are these tests actually run? Is it possible the horse and pig meat had been going in to the burgers for a very long time till it was discovered?” said one 33-year-old UK female from the study.
Even at this early stage, several consumers asked whether it might be the case that beef products other than burgers might be affected. Many asked how the contamination could have occurred and for how long the situation had been going on. There were a number of questions about what would happen to all the burgers that were withdrawn from supermarkets.
Consumers wanted to know who would be held accountable and what would be done in the future to prevent such contamination happening again.
Using VIZZATA provided an opportunity to learn at a very early stage what sense consumers made of official communications from key agencies. Uniquely it allowed us to identify exactly what questions consumers were asking. This provides important evidence at a very early stage of what, for some institutions at least, is a crisis. It is vital to be responsive to consumer views and, where possible, to monitor how these change over time as new issues arise. VIZZATA can help us to do this.