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?
Fruit and Vegetables
It is a universal law of supermarket merchandising that the fruit and vegetables section is at the front of the store, so I too start my search here. All the packaged fruit states its country of origin: Tesco’s bananas are from Guatemala, Lidl Pink Lady apples from New Zealand, Morrison’s figs from Turkey. In Marks & Spencer, I pick up the ‘aromatic Pink Tiger lemons’ from Spain. I want to see if I can find out who the specific producer is, or even what region in Spain the fruit comes from. I am also curious about what a ‘Pink Tiger’ lemon actually is. There is a long code – T.C. 27900038 PAS – printed below the country of origin, which I google to no avail. What does come up is a Daily Mail article on M&S’s “wacky” new product. Here I find out that the fruit is grown year-round for the supermarket in the valley of Aguilas in Southern Spain. I’m not able to find out any further details on their provenance, but I do now know that according to M&S’s fruit buyer, Louisa Reid, “not only is the Pink Tiger lemon a very pretty addition to a dish or drink, it is also more aromatic and perfumed than a normal lemon, with slightly less acidity. It makes a great addition to a cocktail – my favourite way to enjoy it is in a gin and tonic.”
In Tesco, the loose fruit, oranges, lemons and apples, don’t state country of origin at all. I ask the closest member of staff if he knows, and he tells me that he doesn’t, with the apprehensive look of someone dealing with a tricky customer. In Sainsbury’s, the loose fruit states country of origin, but no further details. I continue on to berries, which turn out to be decidedly less mysterious. The packaging on Waitrose strawberries tells me they are grown by Marion Regan’s 120-year-old Hughe Lowe Farm in Kent. From the farm’s website I learn everything from the varieties grown to the number of staff employed. They are members of Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), The Kent Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. The farm is almost self-sufficient in terms of water usage, focused on local sales to reduce food miles, recycles 100% of polythene from its tunnels, and chemicals are used only when strictly necessary for pest and disease control. M&S’s blueberries are grown by Stephen Long at the family-run farm on the border between Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, and Sean Figgis in Faversham produces Tesco’s strawberries, after demand for locally grown produce encouraged the retail giant to seek out new suppliers.
Not all is clear in the Tesco berry section though. The blueberries come from ‘Rosedene Farm’, which turns out to be one of the supermarket’s many fictitious farms. The National Farmers Union filed a complaint with Trading Standards against the big retailers, and Tesco in particular, for selling mixed produce, often imported from overseas, under quintessentially British-sounding fake farm names. As ‘Rosedene Farm’ is a branding exercise rather than a place, the only other provenance-related information on the packaging tells me that the berries come from Kincardineshire, Scotland. A quick online search brings me to Castleton Farm’s website, run by the Mitchells, who supply Tesco – so I assume I have found the source! I learn that they are the most northerly and biggest commercial fruit growers in Scotland, producing 120 acres of strawberries, 30 acres of raspberries and 80 acres of blueberries, which they harvest later than anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Having gone through the smoke and mirrors of the fictitious farm I think I’ve found the real one, and perplexingly it has an equally British sounding name. Why didn’t they just put Castleton Farm on the packet?
In Lidl, almost all the fruit is in branded ‘Oaklands’ packaging, which has a similar aesthetic to the Tesco fake-farm packaging but doesn’t go so far as to suggest that ‘Oaklands’ is actually a place. The advantage here, is that though contained in the branded packaging, the produce is displayed in its original boxes, which not only tell me the name of the farm but also of the pack house. The apples are grown by A.C Hulme & Son in Kent, the nectarines are from Spain, grown by Produccions Agraries and packed by Fresh Gold Quality in Altona.
I move on to the veg section. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pomodorino tomatoes are grown and packed by Seasun in the Netherlands. I learn from their website that the produce in my hand has come from one of their 64 hectares of greenhouses and has been grown with 100% recycled water. This practice of stating the producer’s name on the packaging continues across much of the vegetables sold in Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s. Not only can I find out where the veg is from, I can put a face to the name, with most of the farm websites including cheery pictures of the families behind the business. Though common, the habit of listing the producer is not uniform across the retailers, and in Tesco and Lidl I struggle to find anything that goes beyond the nebulous country of origin. The levels of mystery ramp up again when I cross the threshold into the ‘processed’ veg and reach the bagged salad leaves section. M&S’s peppery baby leaf rocket salad is “produce of more than one country, packed in the UK”.
When it comes to food scares and scandals, meat figures disproportionately. With the spectre of Mad Cow Disease , the 2013 horsemeat scandal and the recent exposé of the 2 Sisters supermarket chicken processing plant, even the most nonchalant consumers are likely to have some concern about the provenance of meat, and the journey it’s made to our plates. But how much are the supermarkets telling us?
I start at the Morrison’s meat counter, which is complete with a retro-style ‘Family Butcher’ banner and a sign stating “Our meat is always 100% British, direct from the farm.” I ask the butcher if he can tell me which farm? The answer: “You have to look on the internet.” I follow the advice, but the website just tells me that the manufacturer is “Wm Morrison Supermarkets PLC”. I send an email to customer services, and I’m referred to Morrison’s Farming, where I find out that the supermarket is a vertically integrated operation that owns its own abattoirs and processing sites. Using an interactive map, I can see the broad geographical locations of the supermarket’s farms, but no specific supplier name.
I head to Waitrose to see the butcher there. I ask if the meat can be traced to a specific farm or supplier, and I am told that the provenance of the beef can, in theory, be identified as it is all Aberdeen Angus. However, this particular member of staff isn’t able to provide the information. The rest of the store’s meat, while providing a degree of detail on the label – Berkshire pork, West Country lamb and so on – has no further information on provenance. Given that any animal killed in a UK abbatoir can be traced back to the farm that produced it, more information could certainly be passed on to the consumer.
So, this is a close as I come to finding out where my meat is from. Amongst the supermarkets I visited, none share more than country of origin in relation to meat, though most proudly state that it is British; however, New Zealand lamb, Irish beef and chicken from Thailand crop up too. In Tesco, the faux farms rear their head again: the pork is from ‘Woodside Farms’ exclusively for Tesco, and the whole chicken is ‘Willow Farms’. While this meat comes from the UK, the retailer is known to also sell imported meat under the bucolic brand names. I assume the comforting ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’ picture evoked, is far from the industrial and intensive reality.
In Marks & Spencer the prosciutto di parma comes from the Cavalier Umberto Boschi family in Parma, Italy. I’m hopeful that I might have identified a primary source, however my web search only tells me that the ham is produced “with selected pork from the best Italian pig farms”. Similarly, in Lidl, I pick up some ‘Deluxe British’ bacon rashers, with a postal address for Direct Table Foods. Though there is a ‘Fresh from the Farm’ tab on their website, it just tells me that the bacon is “cured from farm-assured pork sourced from our network of approved suppliers who fulfil the requirements of the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme”. I give up – I’m unable to trace any of the supermarket meat back to a single producer.
This piece continues on 9th November as Zoe Neilson tries to find out about the provenance of fish and milk.
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news