Life after a public roasting
With the media frenzy abated, Bernard Matthews can begin the process of rebuilding its battered brand. Chloe Smith meets the men facing the task
It could have been worse. It could have been Christmas. Instead, avian influenza (AI) struck Bernard Matthews in the first week of February, hammering sales and raising brand recognition for all the wrong reasons. Jobs, too, were lost and 159,000 turkeys had to be culled as the company struggled to contain the outbreak.
One month on and a very chastened Bernard Matthews is going back to its roots, unveiling a campaign aimed at "refreshing" the brand. "It's given the business a knock," admits Bart Dalla Mura, commercial director of Bernard Matthews, speaking to MTJ about the crisis along with marketing director, Matthew Pullen.
"We have got to restore consumer confidence and brand reputation. That's key in the next couple of months," says Pullen.
An advertising campaign has been launched in national newspapers and on radio stations, and there are plans for a direct mail campaign "possibly in the style of Bernard Matthews clarifying the facts", says Pullen. The company is also planning a loyalty scheme to draw people back to its products. "The first thing is to get out there in a massive, broad medium and tell people it's safe and always has been," he says.
The outbreak of AI opened Bernard Matthews up to widespread criticism. The nature of intensive farming, the fact the company traded on its Norfolk heritage yet imported meat from Hungary and the reticence of Matthews himself to give interviews - even though he is 77 and retired - meant the company was given a roasting in the press.
So how has it been the last few weeks, working for a business under such close scrutiny? "You know, this is a business that has done its best," says Dalla Mura, who describes the atmosphere at the company as "stoic" and says the firm has been as open as it can be and has co-operated fully. "We deal with customers, retailers, different independent bodies and vets all the time. So the message that has come across - that we could have been doing stuff outside that - has cut to the core, because that's just not who we are."
The source of the virus remains a mystery, and while Defra is still investigating links with poultry imports from Hungary and how the virus spread to Bernard Matthews' turkey sheds, the Hungarian connection has proved difficult for some consumers to swallow.
"Our Norfolk origins came under question," admits Dalla Mura. So why import Hungarian meat? "Ninety-five per cent of our meat is reared here, but...if you want a turkey breast promotion we don't want to wait 20 weeks [the time it takes to rear a turkey] and expansion isn't easy. The farms there are also very effective and operate to the same standards as we do."
There are also questions over biosecurity. Defra reported that turkey trimmings were left outside, where gulls had access to them. If the meat was infected, gulls could have spread the virus across the site to the barns sparking an endemic in wild birds.
There is no evidence yet, says Dalla Mura: "They have not found any infection in the gulls or anything else. We have people visiting us all the time. This has not been a consistent criticism of our business. If it was a chronic failure, it would be raised, either by our retailers or someone else, even our vet on-site at the time. So we want to get back on the right footing, we want to get the investigation, we want to find out if there is something we should have done or shouldn't have done because we just don't know."
Yes, Bernard Matthews is fighting back. But the truth is that the company has known, for quite some time, that certain consumers were turned off by their products and had been planning a "brand refresh" since last year.
The Jamie Oliver-led backlash against turkey twizzlers, coupled with the abuse case last year, where two Bernard Matthews workers were filmed playing baseball with live turkeys, has done the company no favours. "Twizzlers stood for everything that was bad in processed meat," admits Pullen. "It woke everyone up to the fact we needed to change. It was a catalyst for change."
That change has involved healthier recipes without totally altering the flavour and heritage of the processed product. "We've been off the pace," admits Pullen, "and this is a huge amount of work, but it is absolutely the right thing," he says.
In the book SuperFoods, Dr Steven Pratt identifies 14 foods that are very nutritious. Skinless turkey breast is the only meat superfood, listed alongside beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, salmon, soy, spinach, tomatoes, walnuts and yoghurt. "Skinless turkey breast is one of the leanest, if not the leanest, meat-protein sources on the planet," says Pratt in his book. "This alone could make it a superfood; but turkey also offers a rich array of nutrients, such as niacin, selenium, vitamins B6 and B12, and zinc."
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