Just how many warnings does a retailer need?
Morrisons could now face criminal prosecution for the Scottish E.coli outbreak. On the one hand, it's easy to sympathise. There's been a huge increase in the number of food scares in the past couple of years and with consumers as likely to be on the case as Trading Standards or the FSA, few have escaped scrutiny. Certainly not Sainsbury's or Tesco, exposed by BBC's Whistleblower programme. Or, Cadbury, fined £1m for last year's salmonella scare.
But if the store at the centre of the E.coli outbreak proves to be the source, you have to ask why Morrisons failed to heed two warnings. In 2005, environmental health officers found dirty equipment being used on the deli counter at the centre of the current probe. This May a second investigation identified "poor food handling". Yet has Morrisons kept a close eye on the store since then? Apparently not. When the E.coli story broke, did it try to allay people's fears by communicating what was happening and offering assurances? Again, no.
The key for any company in this predicament is to act quickly. Those that take their time notifying the authorities about a breach in food safety are not looked upon favourably, as Cadbury found to its cost. Since EU Regulation 178/2002 came into force in 2005, companies have been forced to comply with highly onerous new obligations regarding notification, recall and withdrawal of products. There's no leeway anymore: they face criminal sanction if they don't.
Whatever the outcome, Morrisons needs to take a long hard look at whether its food technology team is big enough and rethink its media communications. Cadbury came through relatively unscathed thanks to its brand strength. Morrisons may not be so lucky.