Opinion


Killing your customers is bad business. Eventually those that are left wise up and stop supporting you.

You could argue companies that sell alcohol and tobacco products must realise what they sell can be harmful – but as the US gun debate shows, even weapons manufacturers universally position their products as objects of self-defence rather than enablers of aggression and harm.

In truth companies don’t set out to deliberately harm their customers. Occasionally, either by design (think Volkswagen which cheated on vehicle emissions) or old-fashioned negligence (which Tiger Brands is being accused of) 21st century firms need to be ready for a crisis of confidence.

See also: Why Tiger Brands' CEO couldn't say sorry

Tiger Brands this week seems to have been caught hopping, despite being aware of an impending crisis for more than a month. 180 people are dead and more than 900 have been affected by the worlds biggest outbreak of listeriosis. 

It’s a national emergency which South Africa’s Department of Health has, rightly or wrongly, pinned on Tiger Brands, owner of some of South Africa’s most iconic food brands, among them Enterprise which traces its roots back 100 years. Generations of South Africans have been told: "Don’t compromise, choose Enterprise."

If you can’t trust Enterprise, who can you trust?

When it comes to the food we feed our families there should be no room for argument. 

Tiger Brands' defence of its Enterprise brand may be legally correct, but its product recall only once forced – after being named as the source of the outbreak – is deeply problematic. Tiger Brands held out to the last possible moment. Whether it knew it would be outed by the department of health at the weekend or not, it should have acted far more quickly once it saw the signs that not all was well at its Polokwane production facility.

"All of our tests and results indicate that we kept a very high standard of quality protocols within those sites. The expectations going forward is that those standards are significantly increased if there is going to be zero detection of listeria going forward," said its CEO Lawrence McDougall.

Was that an admission that its standards should have been higher, even though the firm was admitting no liability for the deaths?

Part of the problem, say experts, is that our regulations and their policing are nowhere near stringent enough. A massive listeriosis outbreak it would seem was just a matter of time. Perhaps this crisis will provide not only a wake-up call for manufacturers, but also the growing informal trade in food for public consumption – and for the government, which has the job of protecting us from lax suppliers.

It is an indictment on Tiger Brands that government tests pointing to it being at the centre of the outbreak came in quicker than its own results. There is evidence that the company was aware of what it terms "acceptable levels" of listeria in its Polokwane factory, but a month later was unable to cite the results of independent tests it had commissioned into whether it had a problem with a customer-killing bacteria.

Surely, if there was the remotest chance in a food production facility that consumer health could be compromised, they would have done a voluntary recall much more quickly?

Tiger's Monday media briefing was full of contradictions. It conceded it was aware that it might have a problem, but denied it was the source of the problem and refused to apologise. While it is perfectly within its rights to demand absolute proof that it’s liable for the deaths, being hyper-defensive in the face of a national public health crisis does not help. When the TV stations are interviewing your customers outside your factory shop as they seek to claim refunds, you know you have lost control of the message.

The moment a customer hand hovers over a product with doubt, you have lost them. The moment they pause to consider whether the food you sell is safe to consume, you have lost their unquestioning loyalty to your brand.

And that, like the products you sell, can be fatal.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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