After delving into some of the unsavoury details of the supermarket’s accounting scandal, Tesco boss Dave Lewis promised to ‘reset’ its relationship with suppliers. But it seems a number of those are still pretty upset about its controversial ‘farm’ brands – fresh produce labelled with brand names like Nightingale- Redmere- or Boswell Farms.
Of course those aren’t real farms and the food is procured from all over the place, some of it from overseas. Many Brit farmers aren’t happy. Over the weekend the National Farmers Union said it had formally complained to National Trading Standards over the ‘misleading’ brands.
‘These fake farm brands are completely unacceptable and we believe are misleading consumers,’ said Stephen James, president of the group’s Welsh division. ‘This practice has been going on across the retail sector for a long time and enough is enough. In particular, NFU members feel the brands confuse shoppers about the country of origin of the food products in question.’
Some in the industry have ridiculed the move, pointing out that country of origin is still labelled on the packet and that it’s patronising to suggest shoppers can’t understand that such brands are likely cooked up in the offices of a London creative agency, not a barn in Wiltshire.
‘The British customer is much more savvy about marketing than most people give them credit for,’ Lewis told MT’s sister publication Campaign back in April. ‘What we do in terms of branding - and not just us, but others - is by picking a name for the farm brands, we set a quality specification that then becomes consistent and matches with the value equation.’ Shoppers recognise the brands as a symbol of consistent quality and price, in other (less convoluted) words.
But it’s not hard to see why others - and not just farmers - get irate. Tesco already has an image problem – many regard it as a corporate behemoth that treads on high street shops and suppliers to maximise its profits. ‘Disguising’ its products as coming from local farms when they come from as far afield as Honduras will not help it undo that.
The fake farm brands are especially controversial after the horsemeat scandal, which came to light little more than three years ago. That episode exposed just how complicated the food supply chain is – and caused consumers to think twice about where their food was coming from. Interest in the provenance of food, which was already emerging before the scandal, has grown and grown since.
Sure most customers aren’t stupid – they don’t think Uncle Ben cooks their rice or Levi Roots personally brews their Reggae Reggae sauce. But there’s a deeper question of authenticity here and it’s certainly not hard to see how some could think that fruit branded ‘Willow-’ or ‘Woodside Farms’ is produced in Britain. At a time when Tesco is trying to rebuild the trust of both shoppers and farmers this kind of easily-avoided controversy is not helpful.