By Bruce Horovitz
If only the spinmeisters could paint this horse a different color.
In recent weeks, unlabeled horse meat has been linked in Europe with some of the world's biggest and most familiar brands: Burger King, Nestlé, Tesco and this week, Ikea. One by one, each has tried to explain away the mess.
But in a social-media world, a problem in the U.K. instantly becomes a global issue. Now, even Americans are wondering: Is unlabeled horse meat going to show up here? At issue: Should each of these brands proactively address this question in the USA?
"It's all over Twitter," public relations consultant Katie Delahaye Paine says. "You can't ignore anything related to food these days because it spreads around the world so quickly."
Social-media jokes abound, such as this Twitter post: In reaction to the horse meat found in their meatballs, Ikea has decided to sell the raw ingredients in a pack for you to assemble yourself.
But this is no joke. The brands are taking it seriously. "This is clearly not a good situation," says Hannah Coan, a Nestlé USA spokeswoman. "We are doing everything we can to address this issue in a timely and transparent way."
Burger King says media reports were wrong, and none of its product sold in the U.K. or Ireland contained horse meat. Trace amounts were found last month at a BK supplier in Ireland, but this was never sold to consumers and BK has transitioned all U.K. restaurants to approved suppliers in Germany and Italy. "We continue to take this very seriously," says Diego Beamonte, vice president of global quality. "Globally, we have completed unannounced audits of all of our ground beef suppliers."
Here's what else experts say the brands should do:
• Be transparent. Retailers should be transparent about where their meat comes from, Paine says. That, she says, includes signs in U.S. stores.
• Be certain. Every food seller should be certain where its food comes from - and what's in it, says Philip Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology at New York University School of Medicine. "Be sure you know what you're putting in your finished product."
• Apologize. Instead of pointing fingers at suppliers, retailers should look inward, says Jez Frampton, global CEO of brand specialist Interbrand. Few, he notes, have apologized.
• Certify safe food. Few companies have put together strategies that reduce the risks of this happening again, says Mark Jarvis, chief executive at Steritech Group, a brand-protection service. "You need to be able to look the customer in the eye and say that the food they're eating is safe -- and is as labeled."
• Reach out via social media. The place to engage consumers is where the conversation is happening, Frampton says. "Don't go on talk shows or run TV ads," he says. "If the conversation is taking place online, that's where to tell people what you're doing."