The Washington Post

Should Ikea move away from meatballs?

This picture taken on February 25, 2013 shows an advertising panel showing meatballs in front of an IKEA department store in Brno. Ikea pulls meatballs from 14 European countries after horsemeat was found in the product by Czech authorities. (RADEK MICA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Ikea may be best known for selling inexpensive, modern furniture that customers assemble themselves. But after Monday, customers want to know more about how its other products are assembled.

The Internet let out a collective “ewww” Monday when news hit that some of the popular Swedish meatballs the retailer sells in its stores contained horsemeat. After officials in the Czech Republic found traces of horse DNA in the chain’s frozen bags of meatballs, Ikea withdrew the product from stores in 21 European countries. (On Tuesday, the withdrawal reportedly expanded to Asia and the Caribbean, though Ikea said meatballs sold in the United States came from a U.S. supplier and were not affected.)

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Pulling the little morsels from stores was, of course, the obvious thing to do. Ever since Johnson & Johnson removed Tylenol from shelves following a cyanide scare back in 1982, the prompt withdrawal of mislabeled or contaminated products has been the gold standard response for business leaders. So it’s no wonder Idea made the same “extraordinary effort,” as company spokesperson Ylva Magnusson called it.

What’s less obvious is what Ikea’s managers should do now. Are the “mysteriously cheap” meatballs so iconic that Ikea wouldn’t be Ikea without them? The meatballs, part of the company’s food-sales division that make up 5 percent of the company’s revenue, are one of its most popular products, inspiring everything from poetry from adoring fans to distressed tweets over their removal from store shelves.

At the same time, trotting them back out (forgive me!) after the horsemeat scandal may give some customers pause. For a retailer whose specialty is inexpensive home furnishings, is it worth the risk to also sell packaged foods with even more complex supply chains? We may not know what’s really in particle board, but any “ick” factor associated with flatpack furniture is far smaller than one associated with food. Is it time to stick to furniture?

If handled correctly, there may be little long-term impact for Ikea from the scandal. After all, Ikea is not exactly Whole Foods-most consumers probably didn’t have high expectations of its meatball ingredients in the first place-and a brand with as many cult followers as Ikea has is likely to weather the storm.

Still, there’s one thing the company definitely needs to do in the short term -- stay ahead of any further potential discoveries of equine in its edibles. It can’t risk appearing as anything other than completely forthcoming. When Ikea reintroduces meatballs in the affected countries, company leaders should clearly communicate what they have done to ensure the right ingredients are in there. Switching suppliers could be a start.

And it wouldn’t hurt to offer a refund to customers with meatballs in their freezer-even if they’re horsemeat free. They may not look so appetizing anymore.

What do you think Ikea should do now? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Read also:

Yahoo’s perplexing ban on working from home

When maternity leave doesn’t mean ‘out of office’

The corporate kabuki of performance reviews

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