With the horsemeat scandal finally off the front pages, the whole issue of food mislabelling is back with a vengeance with new research showing that even British staple fish and chips may not be all it seems. A study by the University of Salford found fish labelled cod was a cheaper alternative in 7% of cases. Separate research, conducted across Europe, found between a quarter to a third of fish products were not as described on packet or menu.

Most British supermarkets seem to have been hoping that this issue will be dismissed by the public and quickly forgotten. I think this would be to misread the mood of consumers. Family budgets remain tight and prices are rising now more than ever, consumers expect to get what they have paid for.

The lack of a discernible marketing focus by the big supermarkets on the issue of labelling accuracy and provenance has been conspicuous by its absence. This is particularly surprising from the likes of Waitrose and The Co-operative Group, which have both traditionally traded on their relationships with British suppliers.

“Taking a reactive stance has left the supermarkets on the back foot”

While the lack of all-signing-all-dancing TV advertising campaigns can be understood from a financial perspective, the failure of retailers to proactively send a positive message by engaging and educating shoppers via online platforms is less understandable. One of the key benefits of developing large communities on Facebook and Twitter is the opportunity to start real conversations and to set the terms of the debate. Whether horsemeat contamination or last year’s protests on milk pricing, taking a reactive stance has invariably left the supermarkets on the back foot.

Engaging in an online education campaign requires careful planning. As ever, content that drives the debate in a positive direction rather than an online vacuum that can easily be filled with cynicism and negativity is key. How about regular Facebook Q&As with heads of buying to explain how they are ensuring labelling is accurate? There is a huge opportunity to use video to showcase farmers, producers and suppliers. How about infographics and animations that explain food supply chains and the safeguards that are in place at each stage?

While food mislabelling is not necessarily an issue of food safety, it is one trust, and maintaining it is paramount to safeguarding brand reputation. Having invested time and money in building social communities, it’s time supermarkets started to also use them as tools for reputation management, rather than for just promoting the latest special offer.