We experience a barrage of information when we buy food. Whether shopping in-store or online, we are met with price offers, sell-by dates, allergy information, product descriptions, calorie intake recommendations, recipe suggestions and so on. Nowhere more so than in supermarkets, where 98% of British grocery shopping takes place. This rush of information reflects a consumer trend of wanting to know more about the food we are eating. But in and amongst the noise, how much do we actually get told about where our food comes from?

Provenance is important to consumers, especially when it comes to fresh produce, with 70% – 90% of EU citizens expressing a strong interest in the country of origin of the fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products they are buying. We like the idea of knowing where our food comes from, but how much are we actually being told? I set a course on a traceability mission. If I want to know exactly where my food has come from, down to a specific farm or producer, how much would I really be able to buy? 

Fish

In the Sainsbury’s fish aisle, I pick up the steamed Scottish salmon fillets. The packaging tells me that it is RSPCA assured, high in Omega 3, and that half a pack will make up 10% of my daily calorie intake. I’m also informed that it has been ‘responsibly sourced’ from Loch Sunart. I google the Loch, and though my search doesn’t reveal which fish farm has produced the salmon, I do find out that the levels of pollution caused by fish farming, and the use of lice-killer emamectin benzoate in particular, breaches environmental standards according to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. A salmon producer that operates in Loch Sunart, Marine Harvest, keeps appearing in the search results. It is the world’s largest supplier of farmed Atlantic salmon, producing 381,000 tons of the fish in 2016 – with a turnover of €3.6 billion a year. With this scale, it seems like a fair guess that it produced my Sainsbury’s salmon fillets. The trail has gone cold online, so I call Customer Services. After a short wait. I ask an agent whether they can tell me who has produced the salmon fillets? The friendly answer is that she is not able to “divulge information about specific suppliers” because it goes against “supplier partnership agreements”.

I try Morrisons next – perhaps I will have more luck at its fishmonger counter. The plastic sign stuck into the ice next to the sea bass tells me that it was ‘farmed in Greece and Turkey’. I ask the fishmonger which one it is, Greece or Turkey? Or did it come from the sea somewhere between the two? His reaction, and the cringing of the other customers around us, suggests this is a bizarre question. He doesn’t know the answer, unfortunately. I’m not inclined to call the Customer Services number, as it will cost me between 3p and 55p a minute. I had assumed one of the benefits of farmed fish was that I could find out exactly where it was from – but this, it turns out, is not the case.

The packaging of the other fish on offer across Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Asda tells me that it has been caught in the North Sea or North East Atlantic. Some, like Tesco’s plaice, state the catching method too. In Marks & Spencer, I see that the haddock was ‘packed in the UK with herring caught in trawls in the North East Atlantic’ by Arne Breivik. I seize this generous clue and look him up. The search throws up pictures of someone standing next to a lake – I think I have found my man! I find out that he is the General Manager of Stingray, a leader in louse laser technology, but I don’t find any more information about the haddock on M&S’s shelf.

Milk

I do not hold much hope of finding traceable milk in the supermarkets, having read about the troubled UK dairy industry. My assumption that these plastic white bottles are about as anonymous as it gets proves largely true. In a nod to the issues facing dairy farmers, the supermarkets have added well-intentioned strap lines to their packaging. There is no specific information on provenance, but M & S’s organic milk is “collected daily from a select group of British farms”, Tesco’s ‘fair for farmers’ guarantee states vaguely that the retailer is “proudly partnering with British Dairy Farmers” and Morrison’s customers are told “you give back to farmers”, with 23 pence (of the £1.23 bottle) going to the farmer. From the online product description, I find out that the Morrisons’ milk comes from Arla Foods, the UK’s biggest dairy company, home to Cravendale, Anchor and Lurpak amongst other brands. Arla’s website is extensive; I find out that the cooperative is comprised of 12,500 farmers across seven Northern European countries, who work to a shared quality assurance programme called Aarlagården. The tenets of the programme are somewhat vague: “the composition of the fat, protein, minerals must be normal”, “we strive to meet the animals basic physiological and behavioural needs, which will improve their health and welfare”, “the milk must taste good and fresh” and so on. I am invited to watch a film entitled “The Life of a Housed Dairy Cow” and to visit an Arla farm on Open Farm Sunday, which fifty British Arla farmers mark by opening their doors to the public. However, with Arla farms producing 3.2 billion litres of milk each year, the majority of which is pooled in major processing plants (the largest of which produces 240,000 litres of milk an hour), it is impossible to trace the milk in my bottle back to a specific producer. In Lidl, the Dairy Manor-branded milk also has an Arla postal address on the packaging.

Most of the supermarkets stock Yeo Valley’s milk. Is it naïve of me to assume that all this milk can be traced back to that one farm in North Somerset? Their website tells me that they have their own herd, but also purchase organic milk from the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCo). I try to find out exactly where Waitrose’s Duchy Original milk comes from. No luck in-store or on the website, so I call Customer Services where a charming and helpful member of staff tells me that, unfortunately, he does not have the answer to hand, but that a senior member of the team will be in touch with me shortly to follow up. At the time of writing, I hadn’t received their call.

Though I’ve come across a few clues, I feel I’ve just dipped my toe into the milk matrix. A little mind-blown by this glimpse of the behemoth dairy industry, I accept defeat on tracing provenance here.

Conclusion

I have reached the end of my search for traceability. The only fresh produce I was able to find that could be traced back to a specific farm or producer was some, but not all, fruit and veg. I’ve visited Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Lidl and Morrisons, scrutinised packaging, searched online, and called and emailed Customer Services. I have also politely interrogated in-store staff to no avail – it turns out that the supermarket shop-floor is not a place for a lively exchange on provenance and quality. There is even less information available online – the country of origin is regularly blanked out – and with a 73% increase in online grocery shopping predicted by 2020, the prospects aren’t looking good for a traceable future.

I have tried and failed to lift the cloak of anonymity over our fresh food.

Read the first part of this piece here as Zoe Neilson tries to find out about the provenance of fruit, vegetables and meat.

Photograph: Echoplex7

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