Launched last month as part of an own-brand revamp, the names of Tesco’s private-label budget lines – Willow, Boswell and Woodside Farms to name but a few –all sound distinctly British. But a closer look at the label reveals the strawberries are from Spain, the pork from Holland and the sweet potatoes from the USA.
Tesco has defended the names, saying some of them previously operated as farms and that all of its produce is sourced from farms, both big and small. But the use of "fake" and "phony" names has been slammed by the National Farmers' Union (NFU). It says Tesco and other retailers - it also names Morrison's, Aldi and Lidl - are profiting from the positive image consumers hold of farms which sits in stark contrast to that of neon-lit supermarket.
“Referencing a farm or a farmer gave shoppers some type of assurance, and this could be further reinforced by imagery,” wrote head of food and farming at the NFU, Phil Bicknell, in an online blog. “It is clear that Tesco have identified that customers have a positive affinity with farmers and want to capitalise on this. In the popularity and trust stakes, supermarkets have been down at the bottom of the league alongside banks.”
According to Bicknell, the potential to confuse and even mislead consumers is clear.
But if consumers are being misled this would put the retailers in direct contravention of EU law. It states that information regarding a food's origin or provenance, including overall presentation, must not be misleading or likely to deceive the average consumer. So is this the case?
According to food law expert and managing director at Hylobates Consulting, Luca Bucchini, it all comes down to whether enough truthful information is given alongside the fictitious brand name.
“There is a long history across the EU of using fancy names which make reference to fictional farms for products which are in fact produced by industry, or by a number of unrelated suppliers, possibly only kept together by specifications set by the brand owner. Sometimes the assumption is that it should be obvious to consumers that a single farm may not be producing those products, or is clear that the farm is simply a fancy name,” he said.
“The question is therefore whether the average consumer 'who is reasonably well informed and reasonably observant and circumspect' is likely to be misled about the country of origin or the place of provenance. In some of Tesco's examples, the brand name ‘Rosedene Farms’ in fresh strawberries ‘Morocco’, as the country of origin, was clearly displayed, and, under current laws, I would say the ‘reasonably observant and circumspect’ consumer would be expected to notice the origin - with no misleading taking place.”
The situation is similar in other European countries too. A spokesperson for the Deutscher Bauernverband (German Farmers' Association) told FoodNavigator the situation in Germany is similar to the UK. "There are many brands [that] may give the impression that the food is produced there agriculturally. With these concepts, the food processers have deliberately exploited consumer confidence, which our farms have built for decades due to the high quality of their food.”
Meanwhile, the entire branding of Italian manufacturers Fattorie Osella (Osella Farms) and Fattoria Scaldasole (Scaldasole Farm) is centred around a wholesome agricultural image but the products are produced in factories and not on farms.
Whether or not retailers and manufacturers are treading on thin ice from a legal perspective, the UK's NFU has hit back with an online shopping guide that shows consumers where products come from in a bid to help them buy British.
The guide throws up some interesting results in terms of premium retailers and cheap hard-discounters, with premium, high-end retailer Waitrose outdone by German hard discounter Aldi for
selling seasonal fruit and vegetables sourced from the UK. Aldi sourced locally for a total of 16 lines compared with 12 for Waitrose, while Tesco and the Co-op came out bottom with only six.
It also highlights differences in premium-priced and standard lines. Aldi and Morrisons source all of their beef and lamb from British farmers for both premium and standard ranges but Asda, the Co-Op and Sainsbury’s do so only for the premium products.
The NFU has said the guide will be continually updated to reflect changes in retailers’ sourcing policies but, in the meantime, is calling on consumers to opt for products that bear the Red Tractor logo with the Union Jack which guarantees the food is British.