MAD COW FALLOUT: RETAILERS RECALL BEEF, REASSURE CUSTOMERS

SEATTLE -- Supermarkets in the West and Northwest moved swiftly to reassure their customers after news surfaced that a slaughtered cow from Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease, according to an SN survey of several retailers.In a textbook response similar to other operators interviewed, managers at Yoke's Foods here posted fact sheets in all 12 stores within hours of the announcement

SEATTLE -- Supermarkets in the West and Northwest moved swiftly to reassure their customers after news surfaced that a slaughtered cow from Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease, according to an SN survey of several retailers.

In a textbook response similar to other operators interviewed, managers at Yoke's Foods here posted fact sheets in all 12 stores within hours of the announcement to let customers know that the beef sold at Yoke's is safe. Managers also were ready to share files with consumers containing documents from suppliers certifying the safety of their products.

Soon after the mad cow case came to light, a handful of consumers called the company's stores and contacted headquarters. Most simply wanted to make sure Yoke's beef products are safe to eat; others questioned where the company sourced its beef, Ken Chapin, Yoke's director of meat and seafood, told SN.

"They just want that assurance," he said. "The public's reaction seems to be fairly mild and a little bit inquisitive. I don't see a panic at all. We feel extremely confident the certified Hereford is extremely safe to eat. What a comfort that is right now."

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Albertsons posted signs listing the ground beef products involved in the recall at 140 affected stores in Washington state, Oregon and northern Idaho.

"We've experienced customer comments on both ends of the spectrum, from support for what we've done to concerns," said Karianne Cole, spokeswoman for the Boise, Idaho-based chain. "They want to know about our refund policy, what the health risks are. Some questions we can answer; some we can't. We've referred consumers to the USDA."

Another operator affected by the recall, Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Foods, provided store managers with talking points as they fielded numerous queries and comments from anxious shoppers, a spokesman for the chain of 42 stores told SN. However, the news did not have a major impact on sales, he added.

"It's just a limited quantity of ground beef from one supplier," said Michael Read, vice president of public and legal affairs. "There's little risk to the public.

"A lot of people are still buying [ground beef], but we have had a lot of questions come into the store and office," Read said. "There's a high level of awareness and a high level of concern."

Read and Cole said they did not know how much beef had been returned to the stores.

Elizabeth Bertani, director of marketing for Seattle-based Larry's Markets, told SN the independent operator purchases only 2% of its beef locally; the rest comes from Nebraska. The retailer posted notices at meat counters and on its Web site.

"We immediately took an inventory, and traced lot numbers to ensure ourselves and our customers that we had a safe supply of beef, Bertani said, adding that there were very few cancellations of Christmas meat orders.

Wholesalers were quick to check whether they had distributed any of the 10,000 pounds of recalled meat to retail customers. At Associated Grocers, based here, Bob Hermanns, chief executive officer, said traceback showed the company had not received product from the meat packer that had handled the infected cow.

"Through e-mail we communicated with our retail members -- following the e-mails with hard copies -- that Associated Grocers had no affected beef product, and that our product was safe and secure," he said.

Larry Nakata, vice president, Town & Country Market, Bainbridge Island, Wash., a six-unit AG customer, said that upon hearing of the BSE discovery, executives contacted Associated Grocers and conducted research in order to relay accurate information to stores.

"We had a lot of questions, but when the customers got the information on where we get our meat from, they felt confident with their order," Nakata said. "We had no impact on beef sales over the Christmas holiday."

Some retailers were able to use the incident as an opportunity to highlight particular aspects of their business. Mike Martin, owner of KB Market, Benton City, Wash., is about one hour away from the farm that held the infected cow.

"Customers who have asked if there's anything to worry about gave us a wonderful opportunity to talk about our safety precautions. We grind all our beef on-site," he said. The store, supplied by Spokane, Wash.-based wholesaler URM, received a "few calls, but no change in business."

The operator carries a large selection of natural and organic beef, and Martin said customers were told these cuts come from animals that are fed exclusively on grass diets, reducing any risk. They were also told the chain has an in-store grinding program.