Crisis Case Study: Fake honey, when you shouldn't go on the attack
By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick
Recently, some brands were found to have tampered with (or “adulterate”) their honey, mixing in ingredients other than nectar from bees. This scandal has dominated the news headlines in the first week of September because it involves more than one brand who all fall under the same product category.
The issue has become so topical that the ACCC has launched an official investigation. It’s also a perfect example for when you should or shouldn’t go on the attack in a crisis.
So where exactly did our honey manufacturers get so sticky?
An international lab specialising in testing food and their ingredients has found that Australian honey brands were faking their ingredients.
The initial report was created by journalists from both the ABC and Fairfax Media, airing on 3 September 2018 during ABC’s 7:30. The report claims that adulterated honey from China is making its way into Australian products, allowing costs to be cut down and larger profits to be made.
Law Firm King & Wood Mallesons bought and sent 28 jars of honey to be tested in a lab in Germany. The test is called NMR testing, and uses nuclear magnetic resonance to detect impurities in the product.
According to the results, 12 of the 28 jars of honey from Australian supermarket stores failed the test, including several jars of honey from Capilano’s Allowrie-branded Mixed Blossom Honey, IGA’s Black & Gold label, and ALDI Bramwell’s mixed blossom brands. Most of the honeys that are said to be adulterated have a blend of Chinese honey, while many Australian-sourced honeys were found to be unaltered.
When tested with the official Australian test named C4, however, all 28 jars of honey passed.
How does a brand react when the crisis encompasses more than just themselves?
How does an issue like this impact brands that haven't tampered their honey?
The news of fake honey will damage the entire honey industry with consumers losing trust. This distrust has the potential to spread to other honey brands by generalisation, especially when this trust encompasses a range of different brands in the industry. The consumer may take the recent news into consideration when they are next shopping for groceries and decide to abstain from purchasing a jar.
Since the report, ALDI has published a statement announcing further investigations into the case and a temporary withdrawal of the affected products, while Coles has long removed the adulterated Capilano products after a product range review in July. IGA has said that their products meet the requirements of the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code.
Capilano’s initial response was a statement denying any issues with the Allowrie product, criticising the testing process as unreliable. They have also stated that the testing process is not used by Australian and international regulators.
Since then, however, Capilano has completely changed their stance. They now have released a statement detailing that Capilano honey is “free from other substances” and that they will help fund an Australian-based NMR facility for honey testing.
Beechworth Honey, Australia’s second-largest honey operator, and the Australian Bee Industry Council (AHBIC) have endorsed the NMR test.
The affected brands have each published statements in regards to the adulterated honey report. Coles seems to have sidestepped the issue neatly with the help of a timely product review, and ALDI’s statement is sure to retain their customers’ goodwill.
While Capilano eventually changed their stance on the NMR test and the fake honey allegation, there is undoubtedly damage done to their brand image.
If your crisis response strategy is to go on the attack and dispel misinformation like Capilano first attempted to do (and is sometimes an appropriate response), you have to be 100% sure you have all the facts in hand. Having to backtrack in subsequent statements is far more damaging than taking responsibility in the first instance.