Tiv Taam Chain Aims to Contain Backlash After Being Caught Selling Rotten Meat

Tiv Taam scrambled to hire PR experts yesterday after the TV consumer affairs program Kolbotek on Tuesday night showed the retail chain selling rotten meat. It had been caught red-handed by a candid camera.

Never before has an Israeli retail chain been involved in a media storm like the one created by Kolbotek producer and host Rafi Ginat, who is also the editor in chief of Yedioth Ahronoth.

Kolbotek presented footage from hidden cameras showing that the butcher departments of three Tiv Taam branches were selling old, spoiled meat. The cameras recorded the butchers trying to conceal the odor of spoilage and bad color using spices. The bad meat was sold as "spiced shwarma" or "spicy chicken nuggets."

"That way the client can't know the meat is putrid," commented one of the Tiv Taam sales staff to the Kolbotek investigator, adding, "We don't throw out meat."

After collecting evidence of the same practice at three Tiv Taam stores, namely the deliberate sale of spoiled meat, the Kolbotek staff invited a representative of the chain to the studio to respond.

The person who showed up was Yuval Arad, one of the owners of the Arad Communications public-relations company, which has a reputation for crisis management. Arad presented himself as a spokesman for Tiv Taam, which differentiates itself from Supersol, Blue Square and other chains by selling non-kosher products.

Arad's strategy was to apologize and create an image of openness. Arad apologized to viewers and Tiv Taam customers, and called it a few isolated cases, not policy (though the show demonstrated the same thing happening at multiple outlets).

After two tense weeks, when Tiv Taam executives knew what the Kolbotek investigation had found, the retailer is now going to war to regain consumer confidence. Many consumers responded to the broadcast yesterday by stating, "I will not shop there."

For the past two weeks, Tiv Taam executives have been visiting branches and refreshing work procedures. Company veterinarians are reexamining procedures, and supply chain supervision has tightened.

Yesterday morning the chain published ads in the papers.

"We apologize to our customers for the findings of the investigation, and undertake to do everything in our power to assure the quality of our products," the chain wrote, after consultation with Arad. The ads are signed by Duby Shnaidman, the Tiv Taam CEO.

Reshet, the Channel 2 company that produces Kolbotek, had furiously drummed up publicity for the expose. Prior to the broadcast, Ginat made an appearance on the popular talk show hosted by Yair Lapid and compared the findings to his famous "coliforms in the hummus" expose of more than 20 years ago, which still echoes to this day.

Kolbotek hit Tiv Taam in the areas in which it has sought to stand out - meats and product quality. Tiv Taam's meat sales constitute a substantially higher market share than the chain's position in the overall grocery product market.

The chain hopes that consumers will believe that someone who apologizes and promises to fix something will be substantially more watchful in the future.

"Nowhere in Israel are there higher quality products," the chain says. "No company does what is now done at Tiv Taam. Especially after a blow like this, it will be impossible to compete with us on product quality."

Although shoppers were few at Tiv Taam branches yesterday morning, and one shopper reported the flagship Rishon Letzion branch as nearly empty last night, market sources expect consumers to return to stores after some initial resistance, if they feel improvements have been made.

No grocers made any moves to try to attract disillusioned Tiv Taam customers yesterday. Retail chains maintained a low profile, as the investigative report could have impact across the entire fresh meat sector. Watching the report could lead consumers to suspect all fresh meat retail products, not just those of Tiv Taam.