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Horsemeat scandal shows how not to win the trust of consumers

One food-related topic has managed to dominate the news agenda in Europe in early 2013. The horsemeat scandal revealed the presence of horse DNA in a number of products on supermarket shelves, such as beef mince-based frozen ready meals. The findings suggested that some of the ingredients in products like ready meals may not be what is listed on the box.

These revelations were certainly a worry for retailers: UK supermarket Tesco made apologies in newspaper ads and announced commitments to transparency on sourcing. Ready meals firm Findus, which was named as one of the suppliers of foodstuffs containing horsemeat, was among those to withdraw products from supermarket shelves.

For foodservice businesses watching this scandal unfold from a distance, there is plenty to be taken. There may even be an upside for foodservice businesses: those losing confidence in ready meals, or even products in supermarkets more generally, may turn to eating out as what they perceive to be a safer alternative.

Of course, there is also a chance that consumers will worry about what goes into their food – that is, what they can’t see. In this respect the horsemeat scandal could actually deter people from visiting restaurants, if they’re worried about what happens behind the closed doors of the kitchen.

Ultimately this food-related scandal serves to highlight the issue of trust. Consumers buy food, in part, because they buy into the brand that serves them – whether that is a ready meal brand, a fast food chain or their local eatery.

Though the horsemeat scandal has subsided somewhat in recent weeks (in terms of news coverage, at least), the fallout is likely to be prolonged and painful for businesses that don’t take steps to regain trust.

For foodservice businesses, the message is clear: trust is the foundation of a successful restaurant. Customers return because they like the food you serve, but also in part because they are confident enough in your ‘brand’ (whether it is a big name or a small business).

So what earns trust? Well, everything from high standards of hygiene, to ethical and transparent sourcing of ingredients, to good service.

The horsemeat scandal may not have engulfed foodservice as it has done retail and ready meals, but restaurants would be wise to use this opportunity to renew their focus on consumer trust.