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.
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.
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.
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.