Friday, January 11, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: Jamie Oliver vs. Sainsbury's: The Apology

Friend or Fowl? After biting the hand that feeds him, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver says he's sorry to Sainsbury's CEO Jason King. Despite his apology--both in a phone call and letter to King--the miffed CEO isn't saying if the grocer will renew Oliver's contract and keep the famous chef around as its TV spokesman. As they say on TV--stay tuned.

On Monday in our feature Monday Morning Java we wrote about British celebrity chef and Sainsbury's supermarket chain TV pitchman Jamie Oliver's attack on his employer and Britain's other three-biggest supermarket chains--Tesco, Morrisons and Asda--for failing to accept his invitation to have representatives appear on his TV documentary about factory poultry farming. (Read our Monday piece here.)

Oliver literally gave the verbal equivalent of the single-finger bird salute to Britain's "big four" supermarket chains for not having spokespeople appear on his program to discuss and debate the issue with him, and answer why the chains' sell what is referred to in the UK as "battery birds." These are chickens raised in small cages and subject to what advocates say are cruel methods of slaughter.

Oliver told a number of London-based and other UK daily newspapers and broadcast TV stations he was "extremely upset" over the supermarket chains' not participating in a discussion and debate on his program. "I am really upset," Oliver told the London Daily Mail. "The question is, why didn't they come? What is there to hide?"

Oliver also singled-out his employer Sainsbury's for extra criticism. Of the supermarket chain, which pays the celebrity chef $1.2 million pounds annually for fronting its TV commercials, Oliver told the Daily Mail, "It's shocking that the people I work for didn't turn up (on his program). I just don't know why they didn't." He also had a few more choice words for the supermarket chain and the other three members of the British retail grocery "big four."

Sainsbury's did provide an executive from the company to Oliver's program to be interviewed on the factory poultry farming issue. The executive was interviewed by Oliver for the documentary. Oliver, however, also wanted the grocery chain--as well as the other retailers--to provide a representative to debate the issue after the program aired. The grocery chain declined to do so, saying they felt providing the spokesperson to be interviewed was sufficient.

At the end of our Monday Morning Java piece we asked the question: What will happen to the relationship between chef Oliver and Sainsbury's as a result of his criticism of the supermarket chain? We posed two scenarios: First, Would the grocer pull it's TV advertisements featuring Oliver as a result of the flap? And second, Would Oliver resign over principle or would Sainsbury's fire him?

We got our answer today. Neither of the above has happened--yet. Rather, Oliver seems to have headed things off at the poultry counter so to speak. According to a story in today's, Oliver called Sainsbury's CEO Justin King, and after what the Guardian describes as a "terse conversation," Oliver apologized to King.

Oliver then followed up that rather tense phone conversation with a letter to King in which he formally apologized and said his remarks were "taken out of context." He also told King in the letter he was "incredibly upset" by the publicity, according to the Guardian report.

Sainsbury's has fought back against Oliver's comments. It ran full-page advertisements in yesterday's major UK newspapers, in which it stressed the quality of the poultry its stores sell, and stated it has nothing to be ashamed of in terms of the birds it sells. The grocer also sent letters to members of its loyalty card program proclaiming the same thing.

Factory poultry and egg farming is a big issue in the UK. Each of the "big four" British supermarket chains sells "free-range" birds and "cage-free" eggs in it's stores. All four however also sell chickens and eggs raised in the smaller cages. Each retailer has pledged to stop selling poultry and eggs raised in this manner over the next three to four years. British supermarket chain Waitrose and the UK Co-op chain have already stopped selling birds and eggs raised in the smaller cages.

Meanwhile, King isn't saying if the supermarket chain and Oliver have a future together. He refused to tell the Guardian if Sainsbury's will renew the celebrity chef's media contract.

There might be more reasons than one for this however: CEO King was already a bit miffed at Oliver for a couple reasons. First, his wife was spotted some time ago shopping at a rival Waitrose supermarket by members of the London press, who publicized her shopping trip (including pictures) and Oliver's relationship with Sainsbury's, which everybody who watches TV in Britain knows about.

Further, Sainsbury's management brain trust became rather miffed at the chef 18 months ago, when he said parents who give their kids "sugary crisps (cookies) and fizzy drinks" were "aresholes and tossers."

(for those not familar with British slang, a tosser has two meanings. One meaning--a person who does something stupid or behaves in a ridiculous way--has moved into the mainstream vernacular in Britain. For the original meaning of the word, you will have to look here. And of course, an "arsehole" is near-universal, with just some slight variations in spelling and pronunciation.)

Will Jamie Oliver lose his contract with Sainsbury's? The jury (in this case CEO King) is still out. Stay tuned.

Read the full story from today's here.

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