In a bid to allay the devastating effects of the latest BSE crisis on consumer demand, retailers, producers, restaurateurs and even politicians across the EU are plugging the virtues of red meat in advertising campaigns that do not skirt the issue but confront it face to face. But how effective are beef advertising campaigns in the face of extreme consumer scepticism? And how is the BSE crisis affecting producers of other meats?
BSE had now been officially identified in Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Switzerland, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. As beef sales fell by as much as 50% in some parts of Europe, and global bans on EU exports brought increasing pressure to bear on the beef and beef products industries, advertising campaigns have worked hard to reassure consumers that they will not contract vCJD, the human form of mad cow disease, despite the fact that numbers of infections appear to be rising across the EU.
Officially, there is still no proven link between Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and the human brain-wasting disease, but the similarity of prions and the results of tests conducted during September 1997 on mice, led many to believe one is the likely result of the other.
A cautionary tale to be learnt from advertising?
When the then British agricultural minister John Gummer tried his hardest to feed beef burger to his four-year-old daughter in front of the press in 1990, only to concede at a later date that homegrown beef was not actually as safe as he said it was, advertising executives should probably have heeded the cautionary tale. No one can really quantify the true risks, or lack of them, but blithe assurances remain a popular marketing entrée. But are EU consumers refusing to listen this time?
Italian meat vigilantes force supermarkets to face BSE head on
In Italy, meat producers turned vigilante in a bid to prevent French beef crossing the border last November, forcing the Coop supermarket chain to face up to mad cow disease head-on in its advertising, stressing that “for our animals, vegetables aren’t just a side dish,” (highlighting the probable link between BSE and the use of animal ruminants in livestock feed).
Domestic sales of meat dropped by 40% however as cases were uncovered throughout Europe, and despite a strenuous advertising campaign by the country’s largest meat processor, Cremonini (Italian meat – safe and guaranteed” read the adverts) consumer scepticism was ironically rewarded with the first confirmed case of BSE in Italy occurring at the Cremonini slaughterhouse at the beginning of January.
Following this lead, US fastfood behemoth McDonald’s maintained, “we are working hard for the safety of our most precious asset [the Italian consumer].”
French adverts stress inadequacy of preventative government measures
In France meanwhile, where beef-loving consumers met the BSE scare with particular venom towards inadequate preventative measures, TV advertisements for McDonald’s claim that the beef used is “tested above and beyond the level French law stipulates.” The beef-dependent chain has also noted its shift towards focusing on its chicken, fish and pork products, a direct response to the fact that during one week in November, like-for-like beef sales had fallen 47% on that week in the previous year.
The burger behemoth invested heavily in boosting consumer confidence across Europe, where a quarter of its food is sold; yet despite advertising assurances, “sales in certain European countries were tempered by the decline in consumer confidence regarding the safety of the European beef supply,” explained chairman and CEO Jack Greenberg. The company saw European sales drop by 11% during November 1999, and profit for 2000 reached only the lower end of forecasts. Greenberg went on to argue, “safety concerns have nothing to do with McDonald’s because our product-safety specifications [comply with WHO guidelines]” and company officials rushed to stress that the BSE scare will only have a short-term impact.
Celebrity chefs reassure Germany
When the first signs of indigenous BSE were uncovered in Germany last November, shock prevailed in a country famed for its large range of sausages. The CMA marketing association rushed to sponsor a campaign featuring celebrity chefs to convince consumers that if they used beef, it must be safe. “We wanted experts who cook and enjoy beef, not analyse it. It wasn’t hard to find chefs to participate. Everyone we asked said yes,” explained the head of meat sales at CMA.
Despite the friendly assurances of well-known faces, sales of bockwurst, currywurst, mettwurst and leberwurst plummeted nationwide. Most wurst is made from pork, but many varieties also contain beef products and consumers have certainly erred on the side of caution. The familiar prevalence of wurst stalls in pre-BSE days could fast become a hazy memory and Christian Zorn, one of around 1500 medium sized sausage producers across Germany, commented that if sales continue to fall, around 10,000 butchers will be out of work. Major meat processors Nordfleisch and Moksel similarly reported that working hours were slashed in November as sales fell by 20-30%.
The near hysteria that characterised the country after belated BSE safety scares culminated in the recent resignations of two important ministers. Agriculture minister Karl-Heinz Funke and health minister Andrea Fisher left their posts on 8 January, publicly disgraced by their misjudgements despite being originally backed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The Chancellor’s wife meanwhile admitted that she no longer knew what to cook.
What’s going on the dinner plates?
Even if the scare is only short term, the stark sales evidence still suggests that the public is largely unconvinced by all the advertising bull. But if they’re not eating meat, what exactly are European consumers putting on their dinner plates?
As well as the demand for white meats rising, for many producers of one-time speciality meats, the BSE crisis has meant an explosion of consumer interest and demand. There is also a boost to the lamb and pig industries, which have long suffered from excess supplies.
Market opportunities for alternative livestock in the EU are wide, including ostrich, wild boar, horsemeat, venison and reindeer. Increasingly negative consumer perceptions of beef were directly linked to the growth of these speciality meats markets in a 1998 US Mission report to the EU.
White meats, chicken and turkey:
Across the EU, perennial white meat favourites such as chicken have been the obvious choice for beef-fearing consumers. Germany’s largest poultry operation, PHW, felt it necessary to warn consumers on 18 December that increased demand and rising feed prices may mean that there may not be enough chickens or turkeys to go round. A press release revealed that “”We are working at full capacity because of the increased […] demand,” and this despite a 15% rise in the cost of a chicken over just a fortnight.
Taped to the door of the restaurant at the EU headquarters in Brussels, a hasty sign stressed that the in-house beef originated in Argentina. Elsewhere in Belgium meanwhile, meat alternatives are being sought in other species altogether. Ostrich, heralded as the meat of the 21st century, filled the gap left by beef on many supermarket shelves, and The Financial Gazette of Zimbabwe has reported enormous growth in ostrich exports over the last few years. Between 1998 and 1999 alone, ostrich meat exports and earnings doubled.
Kangaroo exports to Europe have experienced similar growth over recent years. Exports were first sent to curious game meat markets in 1959, and now the EU is the largest importer of kangaroo produce. It seems highly probable that this meat, often perceived as a passing fad in European consumers, was boosted in popularity by the BSE crisis. In 1996, exports to Europe were worth about A$3m a year. Now that figure can be doubled.
In Prague, Rony Kerhart’s restaurant Convikt specialises in “silverside” kangaroo steak. Kerhart commented: “It’s getting more popular all the time. Nobody ever got mad cow disease from a kangaroo, did they?”
Another strongly emerging meat market in the UK is boar. There are currently around 50 serious wild boar farmers operating under licence (because the animals are technically wild, according to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976) from the north-east of Scotland to Cornwall, building on stocks originally imported from eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary.
Managing wild boar in wooded enclosures on Bodmin Moor, owner of Kernow Wild Boar, Paul Worden, began farming the animals over fifteen years ago. Over the last year however, he has seen sales rocket, doubling over the Christmas period. This enormous growth is something he attributes in part to consumer fears over beef.
“It’s a very good alternative to beef,” he explains. In retail terms, joints of the premium product, low in cholesterol and fat, free-range and additive-free, are also similar in cost to beef.
Worden produces around a 1,000 animals a year for the UK market and is currently negotiating nationwide supply deals with major UK supermarket chain Sainsbury. As a meat more usually associated with medieval banquets, wild boar is undeniably finding its modern niche amid the concerns over staple beef favourites.
Other meats have undergone a veritable renaissance. Hippophagy (the eating of horsemeat) has strongly declined over the last two decades, with consumption of horse becomingly increasingly unfashionable and taboo. Reports had suggested that the horsemeat trade had declined considerably in France, a country well known for its equine eating habits, and in 1990 net horsemeat consumption was only 2.3% of total meat consumption.
Across Europe however, the BSE fears led to a dramatic turnaround in many countries. In France, where consumer reaction was strong, specialist horse butchers witnessed an upturn in their trade while cattle butchers struggled to stay afloat. In Germany meanwhile, official reports showed that horsemeat sales had grown by 80% at the end of last year (from an admittedly low base) within weeks of the revelation of BSE in home-grown cattle.
Venison and Reindeer:
Other outsiders for the beef-fearing consumer’s favourite meat title include venison and even reindeer. Venison producers in Britain have seen demand rocket over the last year, although the owners of Bredon Hill Fallow Venison, Mark and Caron Steele, explained that this also has something to do with the availability of new, more inspirational recipes for how to use the meat.
Increasing demand for reindeer meat is attributed to the BSE crisis more directly, however. In the north of Finland, officials have commented that herdsmen cannot cope with the pace of rising demand for exports prompted by fears surrounding BSE. The main advantage of reindeer is their vegetarian diet of flock hay and lichen, which the animals have always eaten. This slashes the chance of animal diseases acquired through the consumption of ruminants in feed, thought by many to be the cause of mad cow disease. The Association of Reindeer Herdsmen is hoping that with modern marketing techniques, the reindeer industry will be further expanded, capitalising on the recent surge in growth.
While for countless cattle farmers across the EU the last few months can only have brought increased trauma and apprehension, the dining experience for consumers has undoubtedly widened in a positive way. After the initial shock of needing to seek alternatives to beef, the traditional culinary staple across the majority of European countries, the meat market has opened up to provide a wealth of opportunities. Consumer acceptance of authoritative assurances has been considerably knocked. And with many consumers now believing “beef is safe” adverts to be a load of old bull, the widespread move away from beef products has meant that the sales potential of a little marketing from producers of other meats has never been more promising.
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just-food.com has compiled a global calendar of events connected to the spread of BSE. To read this, click here.