The financial cost of Cadbury’s salmonella scare is estimated to be minimal. But be under no illusion; the incident is an unmitigated disaster in terms of public relations.

The world’s largest chocolate maker is recalling seven varieties of chocolate in the UK, including its flagship Dairy Milk bars, due to fears the brands may be harbouring the potentially fatal bacteria salmonella. The fact that such a well-loved family product is subject to such an extreme measure is bad enough for the company’s reputation. However, the real body-blow is the fact that it has emerged that Cadbury only informed the Food Standards Agency of the contamination on 19 June, five months after it first detected salmonella in its products.

According to an article in the Sunday Times newspaper the contamination came to light when the government’s Health Protection Agency investigated a leap in people contracting salmonella montevideo, a rare strain of the disease. The agency began to suspect chocolate because many of the patients were children, the newspaper said.

It seems highly unlikely there will ever be any definitive link between Cadbury’s chocolate and the people that were taken ill, and the company itself is vigorously defending its brands as safe for consumption. Cadbury claims the company found only 0.3 cells of salmonella per 100 grams in January, way below the level that must trigger an alert, namely ten cells per 100 grams.

“We followed regulations at the time of detection, which was below the level for any alert or concern,” was the response of Cadbury’s PR team.

However, sadly for Cadbury, procedure counts for very little when it comes to public trust.

According to research carried out by Lloyd’s in 2000, risk managers in UK and US food and drink companies saw accidental and deliberate contamination, followed by health and safety issues, as the biggest threats to an organisation’s reputation.

It is therefore astounding that a company of Cadbury’s undoubted experience, expertise and size could have dropped the ball in such a way in this case.

Companies operating in the food and drink sector can gain – or lose – much from the emotional relationship that consumers have with their products. Consumers want brands that they recognise, whose quality and consistency they trust. Integrity is key and any hint that trust has in someway been abused can be hugely damaging.

The golden rule, it is widely recognised, is to communicate. Effective communication with the public is based on honesty and transparency – and this is never truer than in a crisis. Brands can be rehabilitated from contamination scares, but the ones that recover most effectively are those that are completely honest from the start, demonstrate leadership and are seen to go above and beyond the call of duty to protect their consumers. When this is allied with a clear and well-publicised PR message, people understand that mistakes happen.

The problem for Cadbury is not so much the contamination but the hint, whether it actually happened or not, that there has been a cover-up and the company’s profits have been prioritised over public welfare.
An example of what can happen when this trust disintegrates was seen in the UK two years ago when Coca-Cola attempted to launch its water brand Dasani in the market, only to be forced to withdraw it completely after levels of the carcinogen bromate were found to exceed legal limits. The similarities are striking. Here again the levels of the carcinogen were well below those deemed by science to be dangerous, but the whole episode was a disaster for Coke.

Nobody is seriously suggesting Dairy Milk will have to be completely withdrawn from the UK, but the brand’s reputation as a family favourite will have taken a serious beating.