The inhumane acts caught on tape sparked an investigation late last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that resulted in last week's recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced during the past two years, the largest in the history of the industry.
And that's triggered a PR nightmare for the $71 billion-plus beef business.
Not only did Westland/Hallmark employees create a huge public-trust mess for the industry, they helped it pick up right where it left off in 2007, which up until now may have been the worst year for the beef industry in terms of food safety. Last year there were 21 recalls for possible E. coli contamination and more than 30 millions pounds of beef.
"It's a train wreck from a public-relations, industrial-relations and government-relations point of view, and it's the kind of wreck no one wants," said Dean Crutchfield, senior VP-marketing at branding agency Wolff Olins. "Westland/Hallmark is going to have to be aggressive and do a lot of reactionary improvements to their process, and they will need to convince customers it won't happen again."
It doesn't appear to be doing that so far. Three calls to company President Steve Mendell were not returned. The company issued a statement on its website Feb. 3 in which the executive said he was "shocked" by what was on the tape and that the company was cooperating with investigators. There was no statement posted on the site after the announcement of the recall.
Countering bad press
Groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have launched major outreach efforts through the press to reach consumers with its safety message.
Rick McCarty, VP-communications for the association, said this affects everyone tied to the beef industry -- though he's unsure what the long-term and short-term impact will be.
With the help of multiple PR agencies, which Mr. McCarty declined to name, the NCBA has been speaking to national and local print and TV outlets including the "Today" show, Bloomberg Television and Newsweek.