Behind the Spin: Bernard Matthews

THE DILEMMA

by
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Oh dear. Things aren't so bootiful for Bernard Matthews right now. Sales are still down in the first quarter of 2007 at Britain's largest turkey producer, since its Holton farm in Suffolk was struck by the avian flu virus in February. The outbreak killed 2,600 birds and led to a cull of 159,000 healthy fowl. A 40% sales slump followed for the firm, which suffered a 29% fall in year-on-year fresh turkey sales in the three months to the end of April. More than 250 workers have been laid off since the crisis began. An inspection of the farm by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found standards of biosecurity to be good, except at its oldest building. It cleared the company of illegally importing bird meat from Hungarian farms inside an avian flu exclusion zone, an allegation strongly denied by Bernard Matthews, who claimed that the disease was spread to the farm by wild birds.

THE SPIN

As part of a damage-limitation exercise, the turkey firm ran full-page national newspaper ads, with the aim of convincing consumers that its products were safe to eat. Chairman Matthews, now in his seventies, delivered a personal message of reassurance. There is talk, even, of Matthews - absent from the nation's TV screens since his 'bootiful' turkey roast campaign of 1981 - appearing in a campaign again, too. Bart Dalla Mura, UK chief exec, said in a textbook specimen of jargonese: 'Our brand-refresh programme continues to roll out. We believe our core customers have returned - we just need to win over those floating voters.'

THE STRAIGHT TALK

Sales have yet to reach normal levels as consumers continue to hold off. And who can blame them? Defra's report on the Holton farm was damning in parts, although the department did not find enough evidence to take action against the firm. Ironically, it will receive close to £590,000 in Government compensation for the cull. Liberal Democrat shadow Environment Secretary Chris Huhne described this payout as 'woefully misplaced'.

THE VERDICT

The outbreak cost the firm a whopping £70m, and its eponymous owner has slipped 223 places in the Sunday Times Rich List to number 414. Sales are creeping up, but a lot of damage has been done. In a move to panel-beat its dented image, the company has said it will vie for the more upmarket pound by moving into the free-range and organic markets. Norfolk's turkey baron might just pull this off - but it'll take time.

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