European concern about American food and drink took a new twist today when Anheuser-Busch Cos. began pulling millions of bottles of Budweiser beer off the shelves in 12 countries because the caps could chip the bottle rims when unscrewed.
Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, said the recall amounted to nearly 6 million bottles. That is only 0.3 percent of the beer company's annual sales in the 12 countries, but the recall could not have come at a more sensitive time.
Europe is up in arms about American food and drink.
In June, Belgium and France banned sales of Coca-Cola products for 10 days after scores of Belgian schoolchildren became ill. Not all of them had drunk Coke, but the company's reputation suffered badly in Europe after it was slow to act and slow to apologize.
More recently, protesters in France and Belgium have targeted Coke and another icon of American consumerism, McDonald's, to protest U.S. tariffs on such Europe food exports as foie gras and Roquefort cheese.
The tariffs were levied in trade retaliation against the European Union's prohibition on yet another U.S. staple--American beef treated with hormones.
Truckloads of vegetables have been dumped in McDonald's parking lots in France, blocking the doors, and one restaurant in the town of Millau in foie gras country was sacked by protesters. Last week, protesters entered another leading a calf, several chickens and a gray-and-white goose. A McDonald's in Belgium also was pillaged. In a few small French towns, localities have placed a "tax" on sales of Coca-Cola to protest the tariffs.
Anheuser-Busch's decision to recall the defective bottles was made only Wednesday, but the company has scrambled since then. Full-page ads will appear in newspapers in all 12 countries--Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland--starting Saturday. Telephone hot lines have been put in place in each one as well, according to William McNulty, vice president and managing director for the European arm of Anheuser-Busch. The response to the recall is being managed in Brussels, where about a dozen executives have been flown in from headquarters in St. Louis and around Europe.
"We would be aware of the many food and consumer goods recalls in the European Union," McNulty said in a telephone interview. "But really, we acted so quickly because we felt it was the right thing to do."
Anheuser-Busch moved after 10 complaints from consumers since the beginning of August, including three who were injured by the defective bottles. Half the defective bottles were on sale in Spain, the company said.
Budweiser sold in the affected countries is bottled at a brewery in Barcelona using bottles made in both Spain and Portugal. Anheuser-Busch blamed the problem on old bottle-making equipment, which was producing bottles with rims too large for the twist-off cap.
Budweiser sold in Ireland, Greece and Italy is bottled elsewhere, as are all but a few of the Buds sold in Britain, Anheuser-Busch said.
Budweiser is an also-ran in all of the affected markets. In Spain, for instance, it does not have any appreciable market share, according to the Spanish Beer Brewers Association. Bar owners say they have few requests for the American brew, and very few places stock it.
In fact, some bartenders expressed surprise at the outcry over the defective bottles.
"That happens all the time with Mahou [a leading Spanish brand]," said one Madrid barman. "Part of the glass breaks off, and you have to throw out the beer."
The other American companies with recent consumer difficulties in Europe have fought back, albeit belatedly. In the case of Coca-Cola, it took a week after the company recalled its products before chairman and chief executive M. Douglas Ivester publicly apologized to Belgium and said he wished he had spoken sooner. Second-quarter sales of Coke in Europe fell an estimated 6 percent, and the cost to the company, including lost sales, was $100 million. Today, "we're working very hard to regain the trust of the Belgian consumer and other European consumers," said Coca-Cola spokesman Randy Donaldson.
McDonald's is in a different situation because its products are not being questioned. But its strategy also was slow to unfold.
The European headquarters of the company made no public statements during the early days of protests against the restaurant. The movement gathered strength, however, and McDonald's has begun issuing news releases pointing out that its franchises are European-owned, its food supplies come from Europe and the employees who are thrown out of work when the restaurants are trashed by protesters are European.