Supermarkets claim to provide only what the customer wants. In fact they encourage buying habits that maximise their profits, and recently they have been promoting organic food which, while providing them with a green image, also hasgenerous mark-ups.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) today upholds a complaint from me against a campaign by Tesco, which was launched with a booklet containing three misleading claims - about the absence of chemicals in the production of organic food, the difference in price and the difference in taste.
These claims annoyed me. For some years I was in charge of pesticide safety at the Ministry of Agriculture, trying to ensure that conventionally grown food did not damage the environment.
Now I am a non-executive director of a health authority, seeking to reduce health inequalities. Poor people have worse health than average, partly because of an inferior diet. Tesco's booklet must reinforce this disadvantage.
To prove organic food is produced with chemicals, I submitted to the ASA a long list of permitted substances, such as basic slag, potassium salt and industrial lime. To refute the claim that organic food was only "a little higher" in price, I spent time comparing prices at my local Tesco. Out of 21 organic lines, only three had mark-ups of less than 20 per cent. A university survey showed that a basket of organic products cost 71 per cent more at Tesco, the highest of the four major supermarkets. As to the claim that organic produce tasted better, I referred the ASA to research showing that trained tasters cannot detect a difference in blind trials.
After months of debate between the ASA and Tesco my complaint was upheld in full. We can hope that supermarkets will now be more cautious in hyping organic food and consumers more resistant to such propaganda.
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