Horse meat, Tesco and how to write a letter of apology to consumers

The case of horse meat found in meat products such as burgers, ready-made spaghetti and later lasagna, shocked the whole of Europe back in the first couple of months of 2015.


On 16th January 2013 the Irish Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced that it had found traces of horse meat in beef burgers, which the company Silvercrest had distributed to leading supermarket chains throughout Great Britain, and that one sample was found to contain as much as 29% horse meat. As soon as the crisis hit, ten million burgers were withdrawn from the shelves at Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and other supermarket chains in Great Britain. Although all the supermarket chains came under fire and experienced a fall in sales, Tesco took the greatest hit: among the contaminated products were two of Tesco’s own brand burgers, which greatly affected consumer confidence in Tesco’s own products and the company’s quality inspections.

This was a dire situation for PR.

There is no magic wand to make the scandal disappear overnight, there is no acceptable explanation for such an occurrence and there is no existing shortcut to regaining the trust of its customers.

However, from a communications viewpoint, the one thing to do in such a situation is to act openly and humanly towards consumers and not deny the gravity of the situation. Every serious company has a pre-established crisis team with clearly defined roles: who communicates to the public, who addresses shareholders and investors, and who finds fixes to the problem. It is important that all public communication is flawless, otherwise it can do further  damage instead of repairing the situation. This was the case at British Petroleum when an oil spill caused an ecological disaster and eleven deaths and Director Tony Hayward stated “I’d like my life back”.

According to many PR professionals, on this occasion Tesco acted in the best way it could have, given the circumstances. So let’s take a look at the line-by-line analyses of Tesco’s response to the horsemeat scandal as done by Lawrence Serewicz and explain how it was a model response to a crisis situation.

The scandal broke out on 16th January. On Friday 18th January an apology from Tesco appeared as paid advertisements in the UK daily newspapers. Title of advertisement:

We apologise.

The advert title set the tone for the rest of the letter: in this letter there will be no hiding or covering up of the truth, shifting the blame or hiding behind corporate statements. We apologise (because we know we messed up).

You’ve probably heard or read that we have had a serious problem with three frozen beef burger products we sell in our stores in the UK and Ireland.

The overall tone was friendly, Tesco did not address the consumer from above nor did it praise itself. They did not deny the size of the problem or hide behind a statement of quality, but they represented the problem in a way that created a feeling of closeness to Tesco, immediately, from the first sentence – the use of the first-person plural gave the company a more humane face, the ‘we’ referred to the people behind the company.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has told us that a number of products they have recently tested from one of our suppliers contained horsemeat.

They referred to the official body responsible for the testing of products and acknowledge the evidence and the quality of the evidence. Using simple words and without referring to the complicated procedures, they told consumers what had happened.

While the FSAI has said that the products pose no risk to public health, we appreciate that, like us, our customers will find this absolutely unacceptable.

In the past some companies would have hooked themselves onto such announcement and continued to deny the issue, claiming that everything is alright and that consumers are safe. Tesco acknowledged the unacceptability of this occurrence, in line with their customers’ feelings on the matter. They clearly stated: although the product is safe (with this they informed consumers that there hadn’t been any risk to their health), it is not acceptable.

Tesco understood that it was not time nor place to emphasize the “health acceptability of the product” and use it as the main line of argument.

The products in our stores were Tesco Everyday Value 8 x Frozen Beef Burgers (397g), Tesco 4 x Frozen Beef Quarter Pounders (454g) and a branded product, Flamehouse Frozen Chargrilled Quarter Pounders.

In the paid advertisement they clearly stated the name of the disputed products that had been on their shelves, including two of their own brand so that customers could check their pantries for the affected products. In this way they put their customers’ interests in front of their own – they did not try to hide the issue nor pass this off on their suppliers. They used the past tense: “the products were,” referring to the fact that the contaminated burgers were no longer on sale at their stores. They also added the following sentence:

We have immediately withdrawn from sale all products from the supplier in question, from all our stores and online.

They did not wait; they immediately removed ALL products from the supplier in question, not just the disputed products.

If you have any of these products at home, you can take them back to any of our stores at any time and get a full refund. You will not need a receipt and you can just bring back the packaging.

Another step in the right direction to please the customer and show Tesco’s willingness to put things right again as soon as possible. Tesco offered a no-quibbles full refund, whether the customer actually bought the product at Tesco or not. This was a reassuring message for consumers.

We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise.

Tesco had not until this point mentioned the supplier, who was not named, and the company only mentions the supplier while reaffirming its opening apology and its admittance of responsibility. Tesco did not try to shift the blame on the suppliers with a ‘we didn’t know’ stance. Instead they showed solidarity in agreeing that they had let the customer down for which they apologised.

If you have any concerns, you can find out how to contact us at the bottom of this page, or go to any of our customer service desks in-store, or ask to speak to your local Store Manager.

Consumers were offered several ways to get in contact with Tesco. Tesco was ready to deal with complaints, questions, or any other consumer remarks and the consumer is left to choose how they would prefer to contact Tesco.

So here’s our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we’ll come back and tell you.

A direct public address with an informal tone to it – the same tone you would use to speak to a friend, a family member or a partner when you have a problem to resolve and you want to communicate your own trustworthiness in the matter. This address also held a promise: that Tesco would find out what happened and let their customers know. Tesco’s customers are Tesco’s community and because of their customers, Tesco would jump to action immediately.

And we will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again.

Did this last sentence round up the apology and promise made in this letter? It did.


Tesco suffered a loss of GBP 300 million from the withdrawal of the products from its shelves alone. The total loss was a lot higher. Horse meat was later found in a spaghetti ready-meal and Findus lasagna.

The company’s subsequent moves on the PR front all focused on remedying the damage and restoring consumer confidence. Communication followed on from this letter of apology as a series of full-page adverts, keeping their community up-to-date with their findings and their actions in light of those findings. This was a key element of Tesco’s success during this crisis, turning a disaster into an advantage. In fact, the horse meat crisis encouraged Tesco to re-evaluate its business procedures and make some fundamental changes to the way it did business. For example, as the source of contamination was foreign chicken, Tesco decided it would source all its fresh chicken from domestic producers – a socially responsible decision. Through their handling of the whole crisis Tesco demonstrated that they would do everything not to ever have a repeat of this incident.

The original letter from Tesco can be found here.

Tags: , , ,

Also read following…

Search the blog using keywords
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 1 2 3