Tesco misled shoppers over cost and taste of organic food

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Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket, has made misleading claims about the purity, cost and taste of organic food, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled.

In a judgement, to be published today, which will come as a severe jolt to the booming organic industry, the advertising watchdog censured phrases in a Tesco publicity booklet implying that organic produce is grown without chemicals, is only slightly more expensive than conventional food, and tastes better.

The phrases cannot be substantiated and should be amended, the ASA said, asserting that some chemicals are used, the price differential is considerable, and there is no convincing evidence of a difference in taste.

The ruling is the first significant pricking of the publicity bubble accompanying the rise in UK organic food sales, which have gone from an annual £200m to nearly £550m a year in just four years, and are predicted to hit £1bn at the end of 2001. It results from a lone campaign by a retired senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture who felt that many of the claims for organic produce and its back-to-nature way of farming are exaggerated.

Geoffrey Hollis spent much of his career ensuring the safety of conventional food - the stuff grown with artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which still forms the vast bulk of the nation's diet. He was at one time head of the ministry's pesticide safety division.

And he has "a bit of a bee in his bonnet", he said, about the bad press now given to conventional food and the chemicals used to grow it.

"I don't mind people making claims for organic food as long as they don't involve knocking conventional food and saying it's bad for you," he said. "Pesticides are vital to agriculture and producing our food supplies, and I am trying to counter knocking copy about them which is not based on fact."

Now 56 and working as an agricultural consultant, Mr Hollis insists he has never received any remuneration from any chemical company. But he feels so strongly that he has begun campaigning - tenaciously - against what he perceives as rank unfairness.

He secured an apology from the BBC governors last month after the Radio4 consumer programme You and Yours wrongly claimed that pesticide residues "above health limits" were being found in British food. You and Yours had admitted the statement was inaccurate but initially refused to broadcast a correction.

And with Tesco, Mr Hollis switched into full complaints mode last summer after perusing the supermarket giant's booklet, Organic. As Natural As Nature Intended, which he saw as seriously misleading.

On organic production methods, the booklet said: "Organic crops are only produced by natural, traditional farming methods. It's the environmentally friendly alternative to chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides that can damage the soil and kill off nature's own nutrients." Mr Hollis took this to imply that no chemicals at all were used in organic farming, whereas he knew that certain chemicals were employed.

On cost, the booklet said: "Production is more expensive, so the price may be a little higher." Mr Hollis believed that the price differential was substantial, on average about 40 per cent. And on taste, the booklet said: "You'll notice a difference in taste and texture." Mr Hollis believed no difference in taste was discernible between an organic cabbage and a conventional cabbage.

He wrote to Tesco, and was, he said, repeatedly ignored, so he turned to the ASA, and the watchdog body has now upheld all three of his complaints.

The phrases in the booklet "implied that no chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides were used in the production of organic food", the ASA said. "Because they were, the Authority considered the leaflet was misleading and asked the advertisers to amend it."

On cost, the ASA said the claim that "the price may be a little higher" exaggerated the lack of difference between organic and conventional food and asked the advertisers to remove the claim. And on taste, it said: "The Authority considered that the claim 'you'll notice a difference in taste and texture' went beyond puffery, and recommended that, unless they could provide convincing evidence that consumers noticed a difference, the advertisers should not repeat the claim."

The ASA was helped to its conclusion by technical evidence Mr Hollis thoughtfully supplied them with, including a Ministry of Agriculture document setting out the chemicals allowed in organic production, which include slag, crude potassium salt, elemental sulphur and insecticides, such as Derris dust (whose active ingredient is plant-based).

He also provided a study on comparative prices by the University of the West of England, and evidence that organic food could not be told from conventional in blind tasting trials.

Tesco, which sold virtually no organic food three years ago but now has 530 organic lines likely to be producing £250m worth of annual sales by the end of this year, said yesterday it would not challenge the judgement, and that the booklet had been withdrawn. "There was no deliberate move to mislead people, and if we have, we apologise, but all we are doing is promoting organics," said a Tesco spokesman. "In terms of the piece on chemicals, that was perhaps naïveté. In terms of price, last year we did have parity between organic and conventional food, although that is no longer the case. And in terms of taste, a lot of our customers report back to us that they think organic food really does taste better."

However, the spokesman said, the wording of the booklet had been agreed with the Soil Association, the principal organic food and farming campaigning body. Simon Brenman, the Soil Association's agricultural development director, said that the ASA judgement was "nitpicking".

"I do not believe the booklet was misleading," he said. "I still feel that it was a genuine and honest attempt to inform Tesco's customers. Organic food is the alternative to food produced with chemicals. The booklet was produced in good faith."