Bernard Matthews insists it is already on the road to rebuilding its shattered reputation in the wake of the outbreak of bird flu on its farm at Holton, Suffolk.
The company is poised to launch a brand recovery programme in which it will move to reassure consumers concerned about the discovery of H5N1 at the site last month.
Central to the initiative, due to break this weekend, will be national press advertising, supported by a PR drive, direct mail and loyalty schemes. The programme will precede a complete overhaul of the Bernard Matthews range.
However, even before launching the brand recovery drive, Bernard Matthews has insisted consumers were prepared to “forgive” it.
It also said it believed most of those outraged by what they discovered about Bernard Matthews during the crisis would not have bought its lines anyway.
At the height of the bird flu crisis, Bernard Matthews’ sales crashed by 40%, as concerns grew among consumers that contaminated meat had found its way into the supply chain - though the FSA later said this was not the case. Customers were already coming back and sales were beginning to recover, said marketing director Matthew Pullen.
“Sales are still in slump, but having sat through some consumer focus groups, attitudes are softening already,” he told The Grocer. “It’s like any food scare: it has a real high point but then it starts to fade away, and people start to come back - and we can help that process along.
“We are going to have suffered some brand reputation loss, but probably that’s going to be more among people who never really bought us in the first place, whereas our loyalists actually still like us. They want us to do something to reassure them, but they are very happy to forgive us, draw a line under it.”
The outbreak blew the lid off Bernard Matthews’ business practices, revealing that the company was shipping turkey meat between Hungary and the UK on a regular basis.
A Defra preliminary report published on 16 February said it was likely the virus at Holton came to the UK on poultry imported from Hungary - though it remains unclear exactly how this occurred.
Defra said all importing and processing activities carried out at Holton had complied with EU laws.
Bernard Matthews’ brand recovery programme would not address the Hungary link, said Pullen, but he added that trade between Eastern Europe and the UK, although currently suspended, was crucial to safeguard domestic production.
“To remain commercially competitive in an environment where lots of people are importing meat from all over the world.
“We have traded some meat with Hungary. In a way it’s protected the 50-odd farms we own in the UK. If we didn’t stay competitive, we wouldn’t have those farms and we’d be doing our manufacturing overseas.”
Bernard Matthews was considering clearer origin labelling on products made from Hungarian meat, he added.
“We need to be more open and honest. We are looking at whether we need to address this through our labelling, or through website communication.”