Pet food contamination crisis: this was preventable

Imagine. It’s 6:28 am. You slowly rise through the many-layered fog of sleep, edging toward wakening, toward daylight, your body’s clock instinctively anticipating the impending blare of the alarm. As consciousness fans away the haze, realization hits like a drum of icewater and you bolt up in bed screaming. It wasn’t a dream. Oh, gods…

You really are the head of branding and PR for a major pet food company.

42 cat food brands and 53 dog food brands are under recall. It’s bad enough if you’re a bargain or store brand, but it’s positively hell if you’re riding herd on one of the industry’s premium brands – Eukanuba, Nutro, etc.

These last few days, your world has been engulfed by The Suck. As press coverage mounts. As call volume explodes. As the first law suits begin rolling in, you realize that the worst is coming fast. The crisis has legs. And teeth. If only there had been some way of avoiding it, or at least preparing…

The trainwreck in which you’re currently participating is a complex, multi-tiered disaster. The first layer is the obvious one. Your product killed somebody’s pet, and in a lot of American homes that’s like killing a kid. (Some homes it’s probably worse – my wife insists that a lot of people love their children as much as we love our Scottie, but this jury’s still out on that one.) There’s another horror story everywhere you look, and now that the public is being flooded with relevant information and plenty of scare it’s likely that food-related diagnoses are going to rise. The only possible good news in this is that most of the litigation is going to target Menu Foods, not you. Enjoy this small consolation if you can.

After this, things get considerably hairier for you, the highly compensated brand and marketing communication pro. The second problem lies in the market’s perception of your product. See, up until that disturbingly long list of potentially tainted products was posted on the Menu Foods site, a lot of people were laboring under the impression that the really expensive stuff, like Science Diet, was legitimately better than the Purinas of the world. Now millions of customers have been confronted with an inside look at how the industry works – the best brands and the cheapest are all using common ingredients from this other company they never heard of. And the perception that arises from this realization?

If you read labels, you know that there are some differences between the premium and bargain brands, but a great deal of harsh light has been cast in a dark corner that the industry would no doubt have preferred remain dark. All of a sudden, the task of communicating brand superiority and product quality messaging just got a lot harder.

Problem #3: How many of those consumers do you suppose are sitting around right now scratching their heads and wondering if they can even believe what the labels tell them? (Hint – I’m a fairly savvy, label-reading freak when it comes to Ronan’s health, and I’m asking that very question.) I don’t mean this as an accusation – there are no doubt lots of trade regualtions that assure compliance by pet food manufacturers (errr, wait – we now know that most of them aren’t manufacturers, they’re marketers, resellers). So I’m sure that the can contains exactly what it says it does.

But what percentage of pet owners are going to succumb to skepticism? How many of them are now lumping your company in with all the others that have lied to them in the past? How many of them will want to make you pay for the sins of others? Now you not only have to deal with a) food-related pet deaths and b) dramatically eroded capability to differentiate on quality, now you get to approach the market with a potentially nasty credibility problem following you around.

How did this all happen?! Well, when you see damned near an entire industry buying off the same loading dock, that can only mean cost savings. It’s probably a damned sight cheaper to let suppliers like Menu Foods handle pieces of the manufacturing. If they’re producing for the whole sector their cost and operational efficiencies must be the stuff of legend. This means you buy for less and can pocket more. Smart business move.

Except that you expose yourself to this kind of catastrophe. You surrender control and assume the risk that goes with it, and when the wheels fly off…

Fine – that part is for the bean-counters to deal with. But there’s another curious lesson in here for those of us on the marcom side. Check this graf from the release on the Eukanuba site:

You may wonder why some “wet” food was produced at Menu Foods. In fact, virtually every pet food company commonly uses outside partners for special or small volume items. Nonetheless, the different branded products made by Menu are not “the same”. Our Iams and Eukanuba pet foods have unique recipes and important ingredient differences that distinguish them from other pet food brands. (Emphasis and punctuation error are native to the original.)

And this from Nutro:

Menu Foods is a contract manufacturer that makes a portion of canned and small pouch foods for Nutro Products and many other pet food manufacturers in North America.

And Hill’s, which makes Science Diet:

In response to the Menu Foods, Inc. nationwide recall of wet pet foods, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc. announced on March 16 a voluntary precautionary recall in the United States of a very small number of canned cat food products that are manufactured by Menu for Hill’s. This involves less than one half of one percent of Hill’s total product line.

Sound a little defensive, anybody?

No doubt. Now, from what I can tell, all involved companies reacted pretty quickly (although one of the law suits alleges that Menu Foods continued to distribute products even after learning there was a problem). But operational agility notwithstanding, the communication guy in me sees a lot of major marcom and PR organizations with their butts flapping in the breeze. It’s like the crisis program was prepared for the possibility of a product taint disaster, but not for the associated brand crises associated with the revelation that everybody buys from Menu Foods. At least, I don’t see anything here that looks like a mitigation of that issue. Eukanuba takes a stab, but the tone sounds like they got caught standing over the body holding the murder weapon.

But – if you were ready for a taint crisis, how could you not prepare for this eventuality?

[sigh] Well, what organizations out there do prepare in this kind of depth? Not many, I fear – budgets are often an issue, and the fact that truly effective crisis planning requires a significant time commitment from a lot of senior people across all organizations. The result is that crisis readiness among American companies tends to range anywhere from “meltdown waiting to happen” on the low end to “that’ll do” on the high end.

Maybe I’m being too hard on these companies. It’s just about a no-win at this point, and as is so often the case, the comm folks are hung out to take the beating for the sins of operations, finance and legal. But so far I haven’t seen any company that’s doing any more than touching the bases on the compulsories – sympathetic tone, working to get the bad food off the shelves, call us if you have questions (and can get past the busy signals), etc. We’re doing the responsible corporate thing, etc.

Still, there’s a larger brand crisis looming for a lot of players in the industry, and it will be interesting to see what the ultimate impact on the premium pet food segment is.

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