Dear Co-op

A seasoned food writer wonders just what Britain's fifth-biggest food retailer hopes to achieve by being the first to `come clean' with new expansive product labelling
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Your announcement this week of new full and frank labelling of the foodstuffs sold in your stores sounds like a boon for customers.

As a consumer reporter who grew up in the Sixties believing Ralph Nader sat on the right-hand side of God, allow me to quibble. The honesty business is so complicated. For example, your sudden confessional mode seems suspect when we ask ourselves why we need it. There was no appetite for detailed labelling when food was handled by specialist shops, when the farmer knew the butcher and the butcher knew the customer. Who is it but your fine selves that has made expert shopkeepers a dying breed?

Your influence is all-pervasive. Most modern farms work to specifications from supermarkets. If Cheddar cheese sold in supermarkets tastes bland, it is because it is made exactly as requested, then shrink-wrapped. If chicken feed is spiked with dyes, it is because a supermarket buyer has chosen yolk-hue from a colour chart.

I grant you, it is hardly your fault that the average schoolchild, asked to draw a chicken, might well think it was a plastic-wrapped packet of six drumsticks. Just how specific does a label get? Milk comes from a cow. Would you like Frisian or Holstein? From Devon or Dorset? From Sunnybrook or Emmerdale farm? South field or north pasture? Daisy or Maisy? The problem with most labels on "natural" products, even when written in earnest, is they have all the understanding of a first-time father who has just read a child-birth manual. To judge from the press releases I receive, there is not a foodstuff that does not have an "information bureau". The ladies down at the Flour Advisory Bureau were musing, when I last listened to them, on why bread needed salt.

Let's talk turkey, by which I mean chicken's eggs. Your new initiative insists we know that battery eggs are battery eggs, which is why you now label them "intensively produced". These products will sell because of their lower price and no-nonsense directness. There is money to be made in this labelling game, and it will probably be made by your printers and marketing department.

I await the expansion of the new labelling language with interest. Who, 30 years ago, could have defined an "E-number"? The average sweetie now seems to consist of them. Freedom Food symbols, phased in by major retailers and the RSPCA over the past three years, signify, we are told, happy farm animals. Yet there is a hierarchy. Much better, much happier animals, are labelled with the Soil Association stamp. What symbol, in the new spirit of straightforwardness, will you give your conventionally raised pork? A twirly tail sticking through bars?

Trust me when I say I thought it was rather daring of you to say that you were going to specify who makes your "own label" products. Do you mean to tell me that you don't? Good sirs, such candour.

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