30th November 2023 – (Hong Kong) The discovery of veterinary drug residues in Meiji milk products in Japan has prompted a major recall and raised concerns for the company’s reputation abroad. While Meiji took swift action to contain the contamination, the lingering impacts on consumer trust and corporate finances will be more difficult to remedy. For a century-old brand known for its quality and reliability, Meiji now faces a long road to rebuilding its standing worldwide.
In mid-November 2023, traces of the antibiotic sulfamonomethoxine were detected in Meiji milk during routine inspections in Japan. Meiji immediately initiated a recall of over 40,000 bottles of milk that had reached consumers. However, the scope of the recall extends far beyond those retrieved bottles, as the contamination impacts production practices and consumer confidence on a broader scale.
Sulfamonomethoxine, commonly called SMM, is used in veterinary medicine to treat bacterial infections in livestock. Regulations strictly prohibit its use within 72 hours of milking cows, as drug residues can remain in the milk and pose health risks when ingested by humans. The fact that SMM was found in marketable milk indicates a significant protocol breach at Meiji’s facilities.
While Meiji stated that the antibiotic levels in affected products were insignificant from a health perspective, consumer trust depends on rigorous adherence to safety standards, not post hoc rationalisations. The presence of any unauthorized substance shakes confidence in the entire production process.
Even more concerning, initial reports revealed that contaminated milk had already been distributed through much of western and central Japan. The breach of protocols was clearly not an isolated case or limited to a specific plant. Meiji’s blanket assurance that Chinese supplies were unaffected rings hollow when widespread domestic distribution had already occurred.
For a company that has cemented its reputation over more than 100 years, the milk recall poses a severe threat to brand equity. Meiji encapsulates traditional dairy production in Japan, synonymous with ideals of quality, safety and health. This legacy has enabled Meiji to expand worldwide, including major investments in the Chinese market.
The recall has ignited heated discussion on social media, both in Japan and China. Many users have openly questioned Meiji’s integrity and voiced intentions to avoid the brand going forward. Japan has suffered other major food safety scandals, like the mislabeling of beef origins at Meat Hope in 2022, which exacerbated consumer scepticism.
In particular, confidence in Japanese dairy products was already fragile in China following the Fukushima disaster. Previous nuclear contamination events had forced the withdrawal of several Japanese infant formula brands from China. Meiji’s contaminated milk will likely worsen perceptions among wary Chinese consumers.
The reaction in Hong Kong provides tangible evidence of waning trust. In major retail outlets, Meiji milk cartons sat unsold as consumers opted for other brands in the weeks following the recall. when product reliability is paramount, even a single breach can have oversized consequences on purchasing decisions. Meiji dominates in the Japanese market, but that position depends on maintaining an unassailable reputation.
In addition to its branding crisis, Meiji faces major financial repercussions from the recall across three domains:
Logistics costs of removing and replacing products
The recall encompassed 44,000 bottles of milk, but the scope expanded far beyond that number when accounting for wholesale and retail distribution channels. Economies of scale enabled the broad distribution of affected milk across Japan, but reversing the supply chain manifold to retrieve those bottles will prove costly.
Similarly, replacing recalled inventory across thousands of grocery stores and other outlets necessitates considerable manpower and transportation expenses. Recalls spread through globalized, interconnected systems much faster than companies can track down and isolate contaminated products.
Knock-on effects across Meiji’s product portfolio
Consumers who feel betrayed by Meiji’s milk products may come to distrust the company’s other dairy offerings, like yogurt or ice cream. This spillover effect can suppress sales and require additional marketing efforts to combat.
If suppliers or distributors downgrade their relationship with Meiji to reduce their own risk exposure, the company’s entire product ecosystem suffers. Partners are less willing to invest and promote brands perceived as liabilities.
Litigation expenses and settlements
Recalls routinely trigger legal action, as affected consumers join class action lawsuits and regulators impose punitive fines. Even if Meiji evades civil liability by claiming the antibiotic posed no health hazard, government agencies can levy sanctions for regulatory violations.
In 2013, Fonterra faced $64 million in legal settlements after a similar botulism scare in Chinese milk powder, despite no reported illnesses. Meiji could easily incur comparable or greater penalties.
Loss of future revenue and market share
The most devastating financial blows typically arise indirectly from diminished trust in the brand itself. Customers who feel betrayed may permanently alter their buying habits to avoid Meiji products. Its dominant market shares, especially in Japan, will erode as consumers migrate to alternative options perceived as more reliable.
This driver of lost sales and forfeited growth is challenging to quantify but will impact Meiji’s bottom line for years. It also threatens Meiji’s overseas expansion plans by fueling distrust in foreign markets.
Navigating the Crisis Fallout
Meiji will require proactive, ongoing measures to mitigate damages and restore its reputation after the recall. Some best practices include:
- Maintain open communication and transparency about the cause and scope of contamination, without sugarcoating facts. A lack of candour will only inflame public scepticism.
- Overhaul supply chain oversight and implement new testing protocols to identify gaps and prevent recurrence. Meiji needs to “show” consumers it takes safety seriously through tangible actions.
- Consider financial compensation, such as rebates or discounts, to encourage brand loyalty in retained customers. Even small gestures signal Meiji values its consumer base.
- Increase marketing and advertising spending to rehabilitate the brand image. Highlight traditions of Japanese dairy production and Meiji’s commitment to excellence.
- Leverage third-party endorsements to help validate Meiji’s quality claims, like certifications or celebrity brand ambassadors. This engenders goodwill and trust.
- Monitor and analyse sales data, consumer feedback and social listening intently to gauge if efforts are succeeding or need adjustment.
A Scandal-Plagued Industry
Meiji is hardly the first major dairy brand to encounter product safety scandals. The industry has faced recurrent issues from contamination to falsified labelling:
- In 2008, melamine tainted infant formula killed 6 babies in China and sickened 300,000 others. Major dairy firms like Nestle, Mengniu and Yili recalled products. Brands implicated in the tragedy suffered major revenue declines. Yili’s market share halved to 30%.
- Listeria bacteria in Blue Bell ice cream infected 10 U.S. consumers in 2015, resulting in 3 deaths. The discovery shuttered production for 4 months and led to convictions for company executives. Sales stagnated for years as Blue Bell slowly rebuilt consumer faith.
- French dairy giant Lactalis recalled over 12 million boxes of powdered baby milk in 2017 after dozens of cases of salmonella poisoning. The scandal cost the company hundreds of millions in losses and damaged its reputation abroad.
Meiji should reference these and other cases to orient expectations for the time and resources required to convalesce its brand. Contamination catastrophes follow a long arc – from immediate product retrieval to assessing causes, to establishing safeguards, to gradually regaining trust. Patience and commitment will be vital for Meiji’s recovery.
The Myopic Risks of Prioritizing Profits Over Safety
Meiji’s contamination crisis spotlights the myopic focus on profits and efficiencies that seduces major food companies to cut corners on safety. In highly competitive markets, dairy firms constantly seek ways to squeeze out more margin through scaled production and automation. But these “optimization” methods also introduce risks that tempt producers to compromise on protocols.
Industry experts point to several troubling trends that privilege economies of scale over meticulous quality control:
- Consolidation of milk sources – Rather than diversify suppliers, large dairy firms secure massive volumes from confined mega-farms. A single infection or contaminant can taint huge supplies when sourcing concentrates.
- Lax Oversight – As suppliers swell output to serve national brands, standards can slip without sufficient testing and inspection regimes. Lapses can permeate across long supply chains.
- Overreliance on Technology – Mechanization and digitization offer process efficiencies but remove human safeguards. Production risks grow absent manual monitoring.
- Just-in-Time Inventory – Lower warehousing expenses by minimizing stockpiles lead to smaller safety buffers. Contaminants in rushed production cycles reach consumers faster.
- Reckless Cost-Cutting – Personal or spending reductions undermine food safety expertise and quality control systems vital for upholding standards.
Of course, profits matter – no company succeeds without financial viability. However, the endless quest to wring out higher margins creates dangerous blind spots. When safeguards become viewed as dispensable expenses rather than investments in sustaining trust, disaster follows. As Meiji’s customers grasp, integrity matters more than incremental earnings from corner-cutting.
Meiji’s founders built the company into a symbol of Japanese dedication to excellence. Renewing that heritage in light of modern imperatives will take deep commitment from leadership down. Crises inevitably afflict any enterprise, but great companies emerge renewed. Meiji now faces its trial by fire.