Beef Marketers’ Online Mad Cow Flop

Confronted with a marketing nightmare — the first U.S. case of mad cow disease (BSE) — Web sites of many beef businesses and organizations aren’t responding.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association created a site devoted to mad cow disease, BSEinfo.org. The USDA, which broke the news Dec. 23, has essentially dedicated its homepage to the issue since that date. But companies and groups with an otherwise strong Web marketing presence, including Burger King, Omaha Steaks and the Texas Beef Council, have nothing about the subject on top level pages. (Omaha Steaks does have information two levels down.)

The Canada Beef Export Federation also has no homepage BSE content, despite the fact the USDA says ear tags indicate the infected cow was born on an Alberta dairy farm. The sole nod to the issue is in a drop-down menu in the “News” option, where there’s a reference to links to further information on BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the medical term for the disease).

McDonalds has three links regarding “beef safety” on top level pages, and two press releases from the past week addressing mad cow in its “News” section.

Pork Licks Its Chops

In contrast, the National Pork Producers Council is making hay (or ham, depending on how you look at it) out of the situation. Headlines and excerpts from news stories appear on the pork industry organization’s homepage. One headline: “Preliminary BSE Diagnosis Not Connected to U.S. Pork Industry.”

“Whether you’re a stakeholder or not, you owe it to the consumer and the general public to put out basic information and educate them about BSE,” notes the Council’s Kara Flynn.

“It’s good to do it because the more secure people feel, the more they will continue to buy meat. Right now, people are continuing to buy the products because they feel the government is on top of it,” Flynn explained. (McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s all say burger sales are steady since the news broke.)

Flynn praised the USDA for its efforts. Among other things, the agency has devoted its homepage to BSE and held a Dec. 29 Webcast on the topic featuring officials and veternarians.

“From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense for a business or industry organization to post information on its Web site to give the public information on what is happening,” Flynn added.

Traditionally, the holidays are a period of heavy meat sales and consumption. “The holidays are a time when people are eating more meat,” said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Sara Goodwin . The meat industry stands to lose money if consumers are spooked.

“People get together this time of year with friends and family and it often involves a meal, whether a family meal, a restaurant meal or a party with food,” noted Erin Worrell, a spokeswoman for the Texas Beef Council. Worrell said her organization has received calls from consumers concerned about beef safety.

According to Worrell, the council felt it would be most effective to use its 15-person staff to answer media inquiries, rather than post mad cow information on its Web site. “We are still considering it,” she added. The site currently doesn’t contain information on the disease, nor a link to BSEinfo.org.

“Since consumers’ reaction hasn’t been negative, we don’t feel there’s any reason to defend anything,” Worrell said. “The consumers who visit our site, because it is a recipe-driven site, that is what they are looking for.”

Worrell says most calls the Texas Beef Council has received have been from the media. She couldn’t say how many calls were from individuals.

“The calls I have taken from consumers have all been positive, ‘I do enjoy beef and I just want some reassurance it’s safe,'” Worrell explained.

Consumers are visiting BSEinfo.org in droves, according to the NCBA’s Sara Goodwin. While she didn’t have numbers for BSEinfo.org, Goodwin commented, “We average about 1,000 visits a day on the NCBA’s official site, itswhatsfordinner.com. [After the USDA announcement] we were averaging almost 2,000 a day. Consumers are concerned about whether the beef they’re eating is safe, and the answer is ‘yes.'”

Omaha Steaks’ homepage features hunks of beef so tempting, they could drive a vegetarian to the meat counter. It does not, however, contain any reference to mad cow disease.

“The news broke Dec. 23 our time [CST] and we got information on BSE to our customer care center right away. The morning of Dec. 24th, we posted frequently asked questions about mad cow disease on the Web site,” said Beth Weiss of Omaha Steaks.

To reach the information, users must click the Customer Service tab, then a tab labeled Customer Safety.

“The decision was made to put it where it was because the information related to product safety is on that particular tab. We feel we’re distanced from the mad cow virus because of the nature of our product. Being a solid muscle product, we’re not at risk for mad cow virus,” Weiss explained.

“We have 40 people on the phones, we get tens of thousands of calls every day, and we got less than 100 calls when the customer called just to ask about mad cow disease,” Weiss said. The callers were “basically wanting reassurance about the safety of the American meat supply,” according to Weiss.

The company’s product is a big gift item, for corporate gifts as well as individuals, so it’s a busy time of year for the company. Weiss noted the Web site has experienced low double-digit growth in Internet sales when comparing 2002 to 2003.

Burger King’s homepage has no reference to BSE because, “it hasn’t been an issue for us. The Burger King supply hasn’t been affected,” said Michelle Miguelez of Burger King. “We have no plan change for our marketing plans for the first quarter of 2004.” The company did issue a press release about BSE, Miguelez said, and the release will be posted on the site, though it wasn’t up at press time. To access it, visitors must click “Company info,” then “Press releases.” Miguelez confirmed BSE has not impacted burger sales. She said Burger King has not received any significant increase in call volume since Dec. 23. Like the USDA (like McDonald’s and the Canada Beef Export Federation, not available for comment by press time), the American Meat Institute site gives mad cow disease priority. The homepage features articles and a striking chart comparing BSE in the US and the UK.

In general, industry organizations (and there’s a plethora in the meat biz) and the USDA appear to have responded early and well to the issue. Many retailers, whose revenues are based on beef sales and consumption, seem to still be weighing their options.

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