After weeks of "absolute assurances" to the contrary, Burger King has released a statement admitting that Silvercrest Foods, an Irish beef processor it used in the U.K., had included horsemeat in its supply.
Although trace amounts of horsemeat were found at Silvercrest, however, the contaminated product never made it to restaurants, Burger King said. The restaurant chain had already dropped Silvercrest as a supplier last week as a "voluntary and precautionary measure."
"Our independent DNA tests results on product taken from Burger King restaurants were negative for any equine DNA," Burger King said in its statement. "However, four samples recently taken from the Silvercrest plant have shown the presence of very small trace levels of equine DNA. This product was never sold to our restaurants."
Burger King is the latest company affected by an ongoing scandal in the U.K. and Ireland about beef patties tainted with horsemeat, touching U.K. grocery chain Tesco and others.
The tainted meat ultimately originated from a supplier in Poland that works with Silvercrest and has been linked to the Tesco scare. "Within the last 36 hours, we have established that Silvercrest used a small percentage of beef imported from a non-approved supplier in Poland," Burger King said. "They promised to deliver 100% British and Irish beef patties and have not done so. This is a clear violation of our specifications, and we have terminated our relationship with them."
It remains to be seen whether Burger King's horsemeat scandal, word of which spread rapidly across the internet, will affect its European sales or even its reputation in the U.S. Burger King struggled with a protracted sales decline throughout the recession, but had started to see a turnaround last year.
The supply chain is a mystery to many consumers, one that's usually invisible, and a conspicuous misstep like this could render a company untrustworthy in consumers' eyes.
Growing consumer curiosity about where their food comes from has led some marketers to try to address the issue, at least in part. McDonald's last year began a campaign to dispel some myths about the chain's food with a campaign about some of its suppliers. The campaign has variously highlighted a beef supplier, a potato farmer, a lettuce supplier and, in the current iteration, an apple supplier. Domino's previously had a campaign highlighting the virtues of the origin of some of its food. But even as marketers begin to talk about where the food comes from, many still ignore the subject or obfuscate the steps between the farm and the restaurant.
Though the circumstances were different than Burger King's, Taco Bell faced a major PR problem in 2011 after a lawsuit alleged that the chain's ground beef wasn't actually all beef; the complaint also charged false advertising. Taco Bell responded with a major print and web offensive, and the lawsuit was eventually dropped, but Taco Bell repeatedly called out the lawsuit to explain subsequent sales woes.