The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned a Tesco advert apologising to its customers for its part in the horse meat scandal because the ad implied that the entire food industry had issues with contaminated meat.

Tesco Stores Ltd (Tesco) had taken out a two-page national press ad following a scandal where some of its meat products, such as burgers and bolognese, had been found to contain traces of undeclared horse meat. The ad in question stated “The problem we’ve had with some of our meat lately is about more than burgers and bolognese. It’s about some of the ways we get meat to your dinner table. It’s about the whole food industry.”

Two complainants (one an independent butcher) challenged whether the line “it’s about the whole food industry” was misleading because it implied that there were issues with meat standards across the whole industry, effectively spreading the blame across the sector, and because it unfairly denigrated food suppliers who had not been implicated in the supply of mislabelled meat products.

In its defence, Tesco argued that the advert was intended to show it was taking the horse meat issue seriously and was listening to its customers, as well as showing their commitment to simplifying and improving their supply chain. Tesco said that there was no reference to any other producer, retailer or supplier and that they had not attempted to shift or share the blame and they claimed that the ad focused solely on Tesco by using words such as “problem we’ve had” and “our meat”. That said, they also pointed out that the advert acknowledged that Tesco had not operated in a vacuum and that the meat contamination issue was due to systematic failings in the food supply chain. They also said that new legislation to deal with the problem would cover the whole European food industry.

While the ASA concluded that the advert had not denigrated other suppliers as no specific marketer or product had been named, they nevertheless considered that the ad did imply that all food retailers and suppliers were likely to have sold contaminated meat products, not just Tesco, when in fact relatively few instances of meat contamination had been found by the time the ad appeared. The references to the “whole food industry” were therefore misleading and the fact that the whole food industry would be governed by new legislation did not in itself spread the blame across the whole sector.

These complaints serve well to highlight the on-going sensitivity and concern across the food industry. Whatever Tesco’s motives in choosing the wording of the advert, whether desperation not to be seen as the sole perpetrator or just an attempt to draw a line under the debacle gone horribly wrong due to sloppy drafting, the ruling serves to illustrate how broad brush claims can land marketers in hot water. General and broad claims should be avoided unless they are capable of objective substantiation (via documentary evidence) and adverts must not mislead customers.