Cadbury's mistakeJul 3, 2006 | www.foodnavigator-usa.co
Chocolate has a nice feeling to it tasty, fun, luxurious and slightly sinful. This is comfort food, accessible to all and epitomised in the recent film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
That sugar-coated glow was shattered last week, when Cadbury Schweppes revealed that for months it had allowed its chocolate products on retail shelves in the UK even though managers knew the products could possibly have been contaminated with the dangerous salmonella pathogen.
Cadbury has not only shot itself in the foot, and harmed its brands but worse, in the post-BSE era, it has also set back attempts by the food industry and regulators to restore public confidence in the food supply.
This increased focus has been reflected at the EU-level in the creation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and various national agencies, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK.
Transparency in communicating food safety risks to the public is now an industry mantra, embodied, by law, in common guidelines laid down by international food safety codes, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP).
Even so the public has remained sceptical. An EU-wide survey, released earlier this year by the EU-funded Safe Foods Integrated Project, found consumers still have little confidence in the safety of their food supply and remain sceptical and distrustful of the management procedures currently in place.
By its recent actions Cadbury Schweppes has simply confirmed the public has every right to remain distrustful.
What were they thinking, all those highly-paid executives at Cadbury Schweppes in the UK? Keeping the public's trust in a food that is almost iconic, is not a matter to be trifled with. But they did.
It is hard to imagine, but they must have collectively thought it was OK to serve their clients what they claim were “minute traces” of salmonella in their branded chocolates.
All this, in a bid to presumably save a bit of money by not having to stop production or recall products. What a false economy that decision has turned out to be.
Cadbury was caught out when the UK Health Protection Agency noted that since March there had been an unusual spike in incidents of the Montevideo strain of salmonella, which is more commonly associated with hot countries.
The cases were scattered geographically rather than clustered, as is more usual with food poisoning. There were also an unusual number of cases involving children.
According to an investigation by the UK's Guardian newspaper, the health agency started to query food samples infected with the Salmonella montevideo strain sent to it by a private agency. Through an intervention by the Food Standards Agency, the private agency revealed that the nine anonymous samples came from Cadbury.
What's more troubling is the discovery that Cadbury had submitted to the private testing agency at least one of the samples in February, before the outbreaks started occurring.
It now turns out that batches of a chocolate ingredient mix from Cadbury's plant in Herefordshire first tested positive for Salmonella montevideo in January - according to the Guardian. The mix is used in a number of Cadbury products.
Cadbury has since admitted to authorities that a leaky waste pipe at one of its key plants had dripped onto the mix earlier in the year, contaminating it with the salmonella strain. After fixing the pipe in March, the company thought it had solved the problem and failed to notify the food regulator.
Months later the lack of transparency was discovered and last week, with a public relations disaster on its hands, Cadbury withdrew seven of its products, amounting to one million chocolate bars, from the UK market.
Local authorities are now testing more than 30 different Cadbury products and the FSA is looking back at various tests. Other regulators worldwide are also investigating the company's products.
Yet the same mindset that led to the recall is still the modus operandi at Cadbury it seems. The company still seems unable to confess and apologise for its mistake.
“We have taken this precautionary step (the recalls) because our consumers are our highest priority,” the company said in a press statement. “We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
“Highest priority” and “inconvenience” in not getting one's favourite Cadbury bar does not come to mind with a previous admission in the same release that “some of these products may contain minute traces of salmonella”, a fact it knew since February.
Nobody wants waste water, much less any salmonella, in their foods.
JP Morgan Cazenove, the investment broker for Cadbury, estimates the cost of the product withdrawals at £5m and another £20m in sales due to lack of consumer confidence in the brand. It also faces regulatory action for allegedly not disclosing the information.
Cadbury is paying now for an astoundingly bad decision, and by implication, so is the food industry.