From the fake farms furore to the chicken hygiene safety scandal, it’s fair to say it’s been a truly annus horribilis for the supermarket where transparency is concerned. And you can bet your last non-Dodecagonal pound coin that one or two more scandals will emerge before the year is out. They have become routine.
The fact these scandals arise is baffling given how straightforward labelling should be to get right: display any necessary product information, be honest about provenance and…don’t lie. Easy, right?
Apparently not. Our giant grocers are regularly found guilty of using packaging as a means to mislead customers and, ultimately, keep their tills ringing. Individual cases appear in different shades of shadiness — from crafty marketing tricks to outright food fraud — but the wider effects of such practices can be disastrous for both the planet and the diets of the people on it. Let’s unwrap some of these misdemeanours.
If there has been one good thing to come out of the 2013 Horse Meat Scandal it’s that provenance is no longer a fringe concern: most consumers now want to know where their food comes from and be assured that products are what they purport to be.
Sadly, such base-level honesty seems beyond our supermarkets, who have simply found new ways to deceive consumers, often turning their demand for local, organic products against them in order to precipitate sales.
Case in point, the Fake Farms issue — in which it was discovered that some supermarkets are attributing produce to mythical, British-sounding farms in order to mislead buyers into thinking they are purchasing local products. For example, at the supermarket Tesco you will find tomatoes marketed as being from Rosedene Farm, which conjures up wholesome images of the bucolic English countryside. Actual source of origin: Morocco. Research cited by the BBC indicates that 70% of adults object to the principle of Fake Farms and yet Tesco have so far refused to call time on the labels.
Elsewhere this year, Waitrose were forced to change the labelling of their ‘British’ ready-meals after it emerged dishes such as lamb hotpot contained New Zealand lamb. While in M&S you might have come across ‘Loch Muir’ salmon and ‘Oakham’ Chicken – no such places exist.
Add to this the vague nature of buzzwords such as ‘naturally-sourced’ and it’s clear that supermarkets cannot be trusted when it comes to provenance.
With nutrition bafflingly under-taught in schools, the importance of dietary information on packaging cannot be underestimated. Many people rely on the traffic light labels to make informed decisions on what they should and shouldn’t be eating. Unfortunately, various evidence suggests these too are being manipulated by manufacturers and stores’ own labels.
This may be done by rounding up or down decimals of sugar, salt or fat, which is actually permitted; or by recommending smaller serving sizes to create a false impression. For example, a bar of chocolate may contain double the recommended daily amount of sugar but if the serving size is a quarter of the whole bar then the sugar level will be 50% – and may appear healthier as a result. Universal truth: no-one eats a quarter of a chocolate bar.
Other instances of this form of trickery include branding low-fat but high-sugar items as ‘light’ and labelling unhealthy yet gluten-free products as ‘free-from’ – both of which – intentionally or not – mislead health-conscious buyers.
A shared responsibility?
Of course the blame doesn’t lie just with the supermarket, manufacturers are guilty of many of these practices, too. But with greater power comes greater responsibility — culpability, too — and supermarkets as an immense collective force have to lead the change that consumers demand around transparency and packaging. The plastic bag buying scheme has demonstrated that small, progressive steps can make a big difference.
As for the present, well, shopping at supermarkets may seem convenient, but the the inconvenient truth is that when it comes to labels and transparency, supermarkets are telling and selling us lies.