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More on egg on the junior minister's face; contrasting branding approaches at IFE '89.

More on Egg on the Junior Minister's Face; Contrasting Branding Approaches at IFE '89

With apologies to famous composer Noel Coward -- "Don't put your daughter (or son) on the farm, Mrs. Worthington!" Certainly not in the United Kingdom where the image of farming, and indeed the food industry, is very poor right now. This is due to a succession of confusing pronouncements by government ministers and experts in the matter of food hygiene, which combined have given the news media a real beanfeast!

It all began before last Christmas when a BBC programme called "Food & Drink" got hold of some "leaked" information about the increasing incidence of salmonella poisoning from eggs. A very "high profile" junior minister (possibly with thoughts of becoming more senior!), one Edwina Currie, then proclaimed that most egg production now contained a particular strain of salmonella. She refused to retract this statement although it was generally agreed that she really meant to say "most laying hens" and not "most eggs."

Mrs. Currie was a minister in the Health Ministry, and this appeared to give undue credence to her point of view which was itself at odds with the opinions expressed by the Ministry of Agriculture (where lies also the responsibility for fish and food matters). In fact that Ministry was forced to offer several million pounds of compensation to those egg producers who had to destroy thousands of hens and millions of eggs due to the sudden downturn in consumer purchases (such is the strength of the farming lobby!).

This "scare" was still rumbling on, fueled by some extravagant stories in the news media and from opposition members of parliament, when along came a second "alarm" -- this time concerning the high incidence of listeria in cook-chill foods on sale in supermarkets. Pregnant women and the infirm were advised against eating these products but, of course, there was more general "panic" and most unfortunately the "expert" who had first started this "witchhunt" was careless enough to call the suspect refrigerated products "TV Dinners." And this is, as we all know, a description of a range of frozen meals. So now the frozen food industry had to issue denials that its products were listeria affected.

The listeria saga has since embraced certain soft cheese, such as Brie and Camembert. As one can imagine, the French are furious! In France it is not only a case of Toujours l'Amour, but also Toujours le Fromage!

Anyway, it now appears that the listeria bug is around us all the time --in the air, in the earth and on our skin. It can even be found in pasteurised as well as non-pasteurised milk products.

So a Food Safety Forum of experts has been set up to advise the government, and Prime Minister Thatcher is reported to be heading up a ministerial "think tank" which involves no less than seven separate ministries because -- and this may not be known around the world -- Britain has a kind of devolved political system which requires that the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to be given the opportunity to be involved in matters that might affect their regions of the United Kingdom.

Well, right in the middle of this increasingly complex state of affairs, there was held in London the 6th International Food & Drink Exhibition -- more popularly known as IFE '89. During its short existence this venue has grown to rival the German ANUGA and French SIAL Shows, and normally it could expect to attract quite a deal of press publicity. However, this year it certainly could not compete with all the sensational food stories. Not surprisingly, the journalists attending the opening luncheon were really only interested in more "scare" revelations or denials. Sadly, poor old John McGregor, the Minister of Agriculture, could not appear at this opening function because he had been taken ill at an EEC meeting in Brussels (not, this writer hastens to add, due to either salmonella or listeria poisoning). His replacement was a junior minister, albeit a member of the House of Lords, by the name of Baroness Trumpington. This could only happen in the United Kingdom and it did lend a degree of humor -- British style -- to the more serious aspects of the problem. And it certainly was a big problem for those sectors of the farm and food industries closely involved.

Of course there are always some winners and the only national newspaper story connected with IFE that I saw on the opening day was a happy one for an old Birds Eye colleague of mine, John Godfrey, whose Food Marketing Services stand featured a wide range of fully pasteurised frozen egg products. Ever since the trade papers have been carrying adverts for several companies in the pasteurised egg business seeking additional sales opportunities. The catering market is being especially targeted, since that is where most of the original evidence of salmonella poisoning originated -- the main suspects being products made from raw eggs.

Safe FF Haven

It so happens that at IFE the nicely self-contained frozen food sector was a haven of escape from the troubles of the rest of the food industry. Obviously these trade exhibitions afford the opportunity for food executives to take a glance at the trading philosophies of their competitors, at least in a rather superficial way since it is hardly likely that companies are going to reveal their innermost thoughts or ideas to any casual observer. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate excuse for food professionals to be seduced away from their office desks for a few hours -- or a few days in the case of foreign visitors, and there were a considerable number of these at IFE.

Stands are not cheap at these shows and therefore managements really have to have a jolly good reason for taking space -- a reason directly related to selling more product. A few of the bigger frozen food companies, such as Birds Eye Walls, Findus and, on this occasion, even McCain, obviously decided that they could get along without participating in the show. Others, almost as big or bigger, were prominently on display: U.B., Campbell, and corporate food groups such as Fitch Lovell, Hazlewoods and the Albert Fisher Group.

On Brand Positioning

It was very interesting to be reminded of the contrasting approach to branding adopted by these larger companies. For instance, Campbell was using that one brand on all retail offerings -- frozen or ambient -- which created a very strong brand image. Perhaps this was a little surprising because it is such a short time since Campbell bought Freshbake Foods. I believe that this was evidence of the way Campbell managers are "setting out their stall" for entry into the total European Market even ahead of the advent of a free-trading EEC after 1992.

One couldn't help admiring the Campbell pack designs. On the other hand, and in stark contrast, the U.B. stand's three main brands -- Ross, Youngs and McVities -- were jostling with one another for prominence. This gave a somewhat "jazzy" effect, noticeable in its own way.

Fitch Lovell seems to be still following a strategy of allowing brands to develop quite separately. Its Jusrol and Bluecrest subsidiaries were on independent stands, each with bold branding.

The Albert Fisher Group, still acquiring several small companies around the world, and the Hazelwood Foods Group, rather featured their corporate identity as showgoers had to go on the stands to look for the individual sub-brands. Maybe not a bad idea when the brands are not given a high profile by heavy advertising expenditures.

Sara Lee and Daloon were noteworthy among the "foreign" contingent, although the former would probably claim to the UK-based!

It so happened that this reporter's visit to IFE included the luncheon period--a rather lengthy one--and therefore I was able to walk freely around without bumping into many old friends or foes! (Mind you, old foes can rapidly become friends when one is no longer in direct operational opposition -- and that's grand.) Thus I was able to take my lunch on carefully-chosen stands starting off with a very full vegetarian sampling of Froqual's "Perfect Souffles."

Next, acting on information received, it was over to the stand at Docker Foods where I met the ever enthusiastic John Docker who immediately dished out not just one, but his entire range of new British style individual "puddings" developed for microwave cooking in restaurants and in the home. All come with their own custard -- that's how British they are! Also offered was a range of frozen quiches and some very tasty mousses and bavorois. One doubts if those dining at the official luncheon fared better! I would love to think that Docker could succeed in selling these excellent products on the Continent but, as reported in a previous article, tastes vary so much throughout Western Europe.

The next IFE is planned for the middle of 1991, at Earl's Court because the exhibition has outgrown Olympia. By then surely more of the exhibits will be designed to catch the eye of the buyers across the wider market which in theory will be more available as the EEC "economic barriers" come down. The question remains over whether other barriers will take their place, such as hygiene rules similar to the ones the British Government are toying with at present -- and which already exist in many other countries in the Community. Personally, this observer remains rather skeptical about just how open the Single European Market is going to be in real terms!

PHOTO : One example of the versatility of frozen egg products shown at IFE in response egg-bashing

PHOTO : in the U.K.
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Title Annotation:News from the United Kingdom; Edwina Currie; International Food and Drink Exposition
Author:Webb, Kenneth J.B.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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