Tesco, horsemeat, and how to write an apology letter.

tylenol bottle closeup

tylenol bottle closeup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Tesco has been at the centre of a food scandal recently in which value beef burgers sold under its label were found to contain horsemeat.  While other companies such as Aldi and Iceland have been involved, Tesco has received the most attention.  In response to the scandal, Tesco apologised and removed all the identified products from its shelves.


For some commentators, the focus of the scandal has been on the question of the food chain. A related approach by commentators is to look at supplier networks for major supermarkets.  For others, it is about the question of whether horsemeat is an issue.  Finally, for some it is resigned exasperation as they ask “what did you think was going to be in a value burger?” These questions, and the lines of enquiry they show, are interesting in their own right, yet my focus is on Teco’s customer service apology letter.


I found the letter to be of an exceptional quality based on its content, cogency, and most of all its refreshingly honest and direct language.  Tesco did not waffle. They did not seek legal defences. They did not blame someone else.  Most importantly, they did not blame the consumer.  One wonders if governments or other organisations would be willing to write such frank apology letters so quickly.  Tesco’s customer care ethos is in marked contrast with the callous indifference of the South West Water Authority, which in July 1988 refused to tell the public in Camelford about poisoning their water for 16 days. Moreover, they ordered their staff to remain silent about it even though they knew the risks and the danger to the public. Organisational silence can be deadly.


To appreciate how good of letter this is, we need to look at it detail.  The following is a line-by-line analysis.  From this analysis, I think anyone in a position of authority, especially business but probably most importantly government could learn.


We apologise.


The opening to any letter sets the tone and this one hits it. The language is direct and to the point. Once you have apologised, you have broken the ice.  The main thing that consumers and customer wants is someone to say sorry, to acknowledge something went wrong.


You have probably read or heard that we have had a serious problem with three frozen beef burger products that we sell in stores in the UK and Ireland.


They recognise the problem and the wider issue.  They understand they are part of something bigger, but are not trying to hide from it.


The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has told us that a number of products they have recently tested from one of our suppliers contained horsemeat.


They have connected it to the official judgement so there is not attempt to look for an excuse. They are acknowledging the evidence and the quality of evidence.  This is not an opinion or your word against theirs. They respect the authority and responsibility of the FSAI. They are not trying to undermine them or question their qualifications, research integrity, or jurisdiction.  This may come later during legal proceedings, but the consumer is not interested. The consumer wants to be reassured and Tesco is making sure that this is clear.


While the FSAI has said that the products pose no risk to public health, we appreciate that, like us, our customers will find this absolutely unacceptable.


In the past, an organisation may have brazened this out and insisted it was safe. In the Haringey case, the corporate officer involved insisted, on national radio that despite a child being killed, Ofsted rated them three stars.  Tesco has acknowledged the issue, understood that it is a problem for their customers and they are stating that the outcome is unacceptable. Even if it is completely safe, Tesco understands that it is not acceptable for its customers.  In legal proceedings, they may use this defence, but in terms of customer care (and public relations), they understand that this is neither the place, nor the time, to make such an argument.


The products in our stores were Tesco Everyday Value 8 x Frozen Beef Burgers (397g), Tesco 4 x Frozen Beef Quarter Pounders (454g) and a branded product, Flamehouse Frozen Chargrilled Quarter Pounders.


They name the product so that customers can act if they are affected.  They are not trying to hide the issue nor pass this off, at least publicly, on their suppliers. They understand that it is under their label so it is their responsibility to alert the customer and make the changes.


We have immediately withdrawn from sale all products from the supplier in question, from all our stores and online.


They have not waited. Much like the Tylenol scare following the unsolved cyanide poisoning case, the makers immediately withdrew the product and changed its procedures for packaging and safety.  Tesco have acted quickly and efficiently in responding to the issue.  Here is how Johnson and Johnson’s, the makers of Tylenol, reacted:


“As the plan was constructed, Johnson & Johnson’s top management put customer safety first, before they worried about their companies profit and other financial concerns.”

The company immediately alerted consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product. They told consumers not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined. Johnson & Johnson, along with stopping the production and advertising of Tylenol, recalled all Tylenol capsules from the market. The recall included approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol, with a retail value of more than 100 million dollars. (Broom, Center, Cutlip, 381)


If you have any of these products at home, you can take them back to any of our stores at any time and get a full refund. You will not need a receipt and you can just bring back the packaging.


They are reassuring the public that this will be handled immediately and without question. Their deeds will follow their words.  They have also said that there is no need for a receipt so they are not going to haggle, or quibble, or refuse to take responsibility at the point of sale.  Again, this shows a willingness to do what is right to make the customer happy and reassure them that if they want a refund, they will be given one.


We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise.


Attentive readers will note that Tesco mentions their supplier only after Tesco has apologised.  They do not name the supplier nor do they try to shift any public blame.  Instead, they show solidarity in agreeing that they have let the customer down and they have apologised.  They reinforce the opening message with a clear unequivocal apology.


If you have any concerns, you can find out how to contact us at the bottom of this page, or go to any of our customer service desks in-store, or ask to speak to your local Store Manager.


They offer the customer several different ways to address their concerns. They are prepared to handle the complaints, questions, or issues at all levels. They are not trying to force the customer to a particular channel. Nor are they only offering one channel, which may be overwhelmed, which would create additional problems.


So here’s our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we’ll come back and tell you.


Here the direct language reaches its peak. At the end of the apology, Tesco is promising to find out what happened and tell the consumer.  One hears echoes of Vinegar Joe Stillwell.  When his army was thrashed by the Japanese and forced to retreat out of Burma back to India, he did not look for scapegoats.  He did not blame others. He did not sugar coat it or try to play “politics” to look good for an audience.  He retreated on foot with his soldiers and said it like it was.


“I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”.


The tone and the directness of the language are very similar. Tesco is telling us they will take action, they will find out what went wrong, and they will tell their customers about it. They will not wait for legal proceedings. They will not wait for a long drawn out inquiry. They will act.


And we will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again.


The last sentence shows their determination and their focus on collective action.  They set a promise that it will never happen again, which shows that they will hold themselves to a high standard and they expect the public to hold them to that standard. For a company that prides itself on customer service, and high standards on its products and its service, this is a strong and reassuring message. The message also sends a signal to the staff that the senior leadership are taking this seriously and providing a standard by which the frontline staff are judged is the same standard as those who deal with customers every day.


Even though no one died from the horsemeat scandal, it represents a good case study in crisis management. Like Johnson and Johnson, Tesco has put its customers first and itself second. How many organisations can say they do this when it comes time to apologise or make amends for their failings? How many are willing to do that before they are called to court, or called to testify before Parliament?  If a company is dealing with customers and needs to reassure them about the issues, they would do well to learn from Tesco’s apology letter.

When was the last time your company or organisation gave such a direct, unreserved, apology and promised to investigate and explain what went wrong?



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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