Who would be a supermarket CEO? You’ve spent years overcoming scandal (Horsegate) after scandal (fraud). You’ve started to win people round with lower prices and by trying to do the right thing. You’re up for The Grocer Cup off the back of your efforts. And then, like something out of a breathless spy novel, a study (dating back to 2014) that investigated the shopping habits of 60 people who contracted hepatitis E is published, and the common link is found to be pork products sold by a mysterious British supermarket codename ‘Supermarket X’, but they won’t say who it is, while the media picks up on the story and ‘outs’ the supermarket as Tesco. Phew! I almost need to lie down.

spy - supermarket x

With such a tantalising storyline (and in a slow news week) the story garnered a huge number of column inches. Far more than if PHE had named Tesco in the first place. And, of course, Tesco would have been able to respond on the front foot, to put the findings in their proper context, as The Grocer has done. Instead, PHE spent days after Tesco’s ‘outing’ steadfastly refusing to confirm X was indeed Tesco. And when it finally did so, it cued yet more stories about the cat (mercifully not from the sausages) being out of the bag.

The episode is, of course, a cautionary one for health bodies in their communications with the public. As epidemiologist Paul Mead argues, “food safety recalls are always either too early or too late: if you’re right, it’s always too late. If you’re wrong, it’s always too early.”

But it’s above all instructive of the challenge of running a big supermarket. They say retail is detail. And as a supermarket it’s only right, since you enjoy many benefits due to your size, that you also carry the can for your own-label suppliers and their myriad global supply chains.

But it’s a wonder supermarket CEOs sleep at night, knowing that at any minute, your share price could be trashed, and your reputation could lie in tatters once again. As it happens, Tesco’s share price has actually gone up this week, suggesting this is a case of media hysteria rather than something more contagious. But still. Scary and troubling.