The proof is not always in the eating

18 February 2011
As a food enthusiast, I am always on the hunt for quality products and lately, I have been amazed to see just how many brands are surfing on the wave of ‘local, sustainable food’. I also happen to watch a fair bit of TV and would not be surprised to find there is a strong correlation between this trend and the ever-growing presence on our screens of the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. In their mission to educate the nation about what’s right and wrong in the food industry, celebrity chefs are trying hard to convert the nation to more ethical eating habits and it looks like slogans of ‘good honest British food’ are finally catching on. The idea of local sourcing is an appealing one – the assumption here is that local ingredients are not only the freshest; they are also a great way of supporting regional producers, while avoiding unnecessary transport, thus reducing cost and damage to the environment. But things are not always what they seem. ‘Honesty’ and ‘local sourcing’ do not always go hand-in-hand. Take the case of the Oakham chicken, for instance. In a bid to make their product more appealing to the local food-conscious consumer, M&S trademarked the name of an existing British town and labelled it ‘Oakham chicken’ even though it was not from there at all, but from farms as far apart as Northern Ireland and the Suffolk coast. A similar approach had been taken with ‘Lochmuir salmon’ (Lochmuir does not exist). And, despite what it says on the label, sometimes even the buyers themselves are not aware of unscrupulous behaviour happening further down the supply chain. Finally, there’s the cost of ‘honest’ food. I’m quite willing to spend an extra pound to support responsible food sourcing but I can’t help thinking that it is also a convenient way to justify somewhat over-inflated prices. I once questioned a waitress in a pub as to why their fish and chips cost £11.95 only to be looked at with disdain and told: “It’s sustainably fished”. Hopefully it was. My point is that if the cause is to continue to receive the attention it deserves, it’s vital companies demonstrate greater transparency. Consumers will get frustrated if it only takes scratching the surface to realise that ethical branding is just the product of over-zealous marketing that is a bit too quick to manipulate the facts.
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