Last year’s horsemeat furore left supermarket chain Iceland feeling the heat. So it called on legal chief Jayne Burrell for some cool-headed thinking
Supermarket chain Iceland has had a difficult media image over recent years. Any business having to live down an advertising campaign fronted by the car-crash celebrity that is Kerry Katona doesn’t need another dose of bad publicity.
Which is undoubtedly why the business’s top lawyer reacted in double-quick time to reports at the beginning of the year that Iceland was attempting to bring the full force of the law to bear on three north London squat residents for allegedly stealing discarded vegetables from a skip at one of its stores.
It was not true, but Iceland group general counsel and company secretary Jayne Burrell needed to move quickly to ensure the story did not spin out of control. That involved liaising with a lawyer at one of her trusted law firms to smooth a path to the top of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
“I got on to the London office of DWF to see if they had a contact at the CPS – it’s difficult to go in cold if you don’t know anybody. They contacted a senior official who was aware of the case and told them Iceland didn’t want to pursue this issue, that it wouldn’t be in the public interest. The food involved had no value; it couldn’t be sold; it was discarded because it was not safe to eat.”
Burrell followed that with her own email to the CPS official and to the local police to emphasise that Iceland preferred the matter were dropped.
“The ultimate decision was not ours,” she says, “but we wanted it on record that we didn’t want the matter pursued. As soon as we made our case, the CPS dropped it.”
The general counsel describes the prosecutors as being “receptive and responsive”, with the issue resolved in less than 24 hours.
Dealing with that type of unforeseeable reputational crisis convinces Burrell that a career in-house is far more dynamic than where she started as a private practice non-contentious IP specialist. And, indeed, letting off the hook three chaps on the prowl for free veg pales in comparison with last year’s horsemeat scandal in reputational terms.
The UK public and press are renowned for revelling in a let-the-dogs-out media panic. And the ruck over whether the world was going to spin off its axis because traces of a beast eaten by societies around the world were found in a few high street frozen meals ticked all the boxes. Iceland was by no means the only retailer in the frame, but it had to deal with a BBC behind-the-scenes documentary filmed at the height of the palaver.
Burrell’s first point about the legal issues swirling around the saga is clear.
“Horsemeat was never found in any Iceland product,” she says, with a lawyer’s succinctness.
She says the biggest issue for her department was monitoring and countering “the amount of defamatory articles in the media and press, which are still going on now”. With a sense of frustration, Burrell points out that, well after a year since the height of the row, Iceland was still waiting for certain publications to publish apologies for incorrectly stating that horsemeat was found in its products.
Burrell has no complaints about the documentary.
“If anything, it was a good thing for us that the BBC was filming at the time,” she maintains. “It gave the audience a real account of how we reacted, how seriously we had taken it and the impact it had on our business.”
More problematic was an allegation from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), maintaining that its testing method had been unfairly denigrated in an Iceland advertisement. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found against Iceland, with the supermarket’s legal department integrally involved in dealing with the process.
“Unfortunately, the ASA upheld the complaint because it said we should have made it clear the testing methodology was commonly used in North America and therefore it was incorrect for us to imply the FSAI had not taken due care to ensure the accuracy of the results.”
However, Burrell’s team won a partial victory with the ASA, successfully defending a complaint that Iceland’s advertisement was misleading when it claimed “no horsemeat has ever been found in an Iceland product”. The complaint said that statement was contradicted by text in the same ad, stating that two Iceland burgers contained 0.1 per cent equine DNA.
Explains Burrell: “The ASA accepted our argument that the ad made a distinction between horsemeat and horse DNA, and that further tests commissioned by Iceland on its burgers and all other Iceland beef products had not detected horse DNA. The legal team was solely responsible for collating information from our technical department and responding to the ASA complaints.”
But that was not the end of the horsemeat grilling for Iceland. Executives were called to give evidence before a House of Commons select committee, with Burrell’s
legal team – in conjunction with a partner from the DWF retail department – briefing in advance.
Burrell takes a thoroughly modern approach to dealing with outside counsel. She runs an “informal” law firm panel, but her mantra is simple: “I absolutely hate hourly billing.”
Openness is the watchword with the Iceland legal chief.
She says: “I’d rather have someone tell me at the outset of a matter that they think the total bill is going to be X amount. And obviously, if the parameters move for whatever reason we can have a sensible discussion – that’s no problem. But what I can’t stand is a system where you worry you’re going to be charged every time you pick up the phone.”
Jayne Burrell, Iceland
Position: Company secretary and legal director
Reporting to: Chief financial officer Tarsem Dhaliwal
Legal spend: N/A
Legal team: 3 lawyers plus a trainee; 15 staff in total
“A reality you don’t get in private practice”
After training and qualifying as a non-contentious IP specialist in 2000 at the Manchester office of Eversheds, Iceland’s top lawyer went to an in-house role at British Nuclear Fuels.
“I loved in-house, but found that industry really dull,” she recalls. “I was shoved into working on electricity trading with BNFL subsidiary Magnox – it was even more boring than it sounds.”
After 18 months she went to the Big Food Group – Iceland’s then-owner – as a junior lawyer. When the group split in 2005 she stayed with Iceland, becoming head of department a year later and being promoted to her present role in 2011.
“There’s a commercial reality you don’t often get in private practice, where you’re so often isolated from the clients and deal with so many of them,” says Burrell, of her decision to stay in-house. “That’s particularly the case now that private practice has become so niche – you get little bits of a jigsaw, but never get to piece the jigsaw together.
“Working in-house you get a chance to understand the industry and how what you’re doing fits with a wider objective. And your colleagues don’t just want to know the law – they want to know how it can be applied practically to the business.”
Why lawyers go to Iceland
Burrell operates an approved list of law firms rather than a formal panel. On it are DWF, Hill Dickinson, Allen & Overy for large corporate transactions, Elliott Duffy Garrett in Belfast and Edinburgh-based Anderson Strathern.
Burrell says her primary consideration when instructing private practice firms is accessibility.
“I look for someone who is contactable,” she says. “My major bugbear is voicemail – I can’t stand getting into a voicemail black hole. I want mobile numbers and I want the lawyers’ secretaries not to have voicemail.”
The general counsel is also adamant that private practice lawyers must have a commercial ethos.
“I want someone who understands the business,” she says. “We have a definite culture here – retail is fast-moving so you want someone who’s willing to put their neck on the line with proper advice, not sit on the fence and just tell you what the law is.”