Tesco has major image difficulties.
Its chronic problem is that communities up and down the land bristle with resentment as yet another of its stores pops up like the proverbial bad penny in their already oversubscribed vicinity. Its more acute problem is that it suffered more than any of its competitors from the horse-meat scandal, so much so that it felt obliged to distribute leaflets and take out humiliating full-page newspaper adverts, apologising for its poor performance and pledging to do better.
But just three months on from its horse-meat embarrassment, it’s apparent that Tesco’s reputation managers have been busy. Forget all that bad news about the retailer “bullying” its way into communities and selling adulterated burgers. Tesco has adopted a fresh, clean image: champion of the nation’s health. It has just unveiled plans to use data on customers’ personal shopping habits gathered from its Clubcard loyalty programme to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis. The detail of how Tesco proposes to set about doing this is, as yet, sketchy. But it says that one possible option might be to reward customers who load up their trolleys with junk, with vouchers for products it deems healthier.
As the UK’s biggest grocery chain, Tesco plays a critical role in influencing what we eat, indeed in helping determine the curves and contours of the nation’s very body shape. But how can we take such posturing seriously from Tesco, or any other supermarket chain, when their aisles are stiff with bumper packs of crisps, fizzy drinks and low-grade processed foods? Any fool can see how expensive nutritious, nutrient-rich food is in supermarkets; the most brazen mark-ups are reserved for fresh fruit and vegetables, precisely the category of food we’re told to consume more of. The junk they sell us is a whole lot cheaper. In fact, wasn’t it supermarkets that made us fat in the first place?
It’s no coincidence that Britain’s eating habits have worsened, just as supermarkets have steadily tightened their oligopolistic grip on the nation’s grocery market. The more we shop in supermarkets, the less we cook, and the less slim and healthy we become. Bad luck? Hardly.
Supermarkets have a direct financial interest in steering us away from raw, unprocessed ingredients, the sort you cook from scratch at home, on to lucrative, value-added, processed food of dubious nutritional provenance. Why? There’s only so much even the most shameless retailer can charge for potatoes, for instance, even if they are some heritage variety, hand-washed in spa water by virgins. But process them into crisps, chips, ready-to-use mash, and you have created a licence to print money.
Until the supermarkets really went for a near-as-damn-it takeover of the UK grocery market in the early 1990s, most people lived on home-cooked food, and were pretty healthy on it. Obesity was a relative rarity. Then our supermarkets fed us a barrel full of self-serving marketing spin. They invented the notion of the “cash-rich/time-poor” shopper, with the attendant implication that if you have time to cook you must be a loser.
Supermarkets actively encouraged our dependence on a processed food diet, because it suits their bottom line. When the results of this disastrous switch in eating habits could no longer be contained, much like a bulging abdomen, they promptly reinvented themselves as doughty fighters for the nation’s health, responsibly nudging an errant Billy Bunter of a nation into making a “healthier choice”. The tone of this latest Tesco health initiative is predictably patronising. “Our customers have told us they’d like help in choosing healthy options,” says Tesco boss Philip Clarke. He says that 65 per cent of its customers say their lifestyle is not as healthy as they would like. Subtext: “It’s the customers’ fault if they get fat and ill, not ours. What we sell has nothing to do with it.”
Post Horsegate more people are cynical about supermarket products, so the chains are even more at pains to stress their health credentials. Tesco, for instance, trumpets that it’s teaming up with Diabetes UK to research eating habits. This may sound progressive, but like other health charities, this organisation works with companies that have financial interests in the pharmaceutical and food industries, which may influence its interpretation of data and policy goals somewhat.
Playing the public health card also guarantees supermarkets a place at the government top table. Tesco’s online tool – the “healthy little differences tracker” – will contribute data on customers’ eating habits to government research into obesity. Now this is worrying. What you have is powerful companies that make a major contribution to obesity and ill-health spoon-feeding government data, bending the ear of regulators. In this way, supermarkets worm their way into the heart of decision-making about ill-health and bad nutrition, unchallenged about their role in encouraging it.
The bottom line is that all supermarket initiatives on healthier eating need to be treated with deep suspicion. One of the best things that most of us could do to improve our health and wellbeing would be to stop shopping routinely in supermarkets, break our dependence on convenience food and cook more from scratch. That’s the obvious “lifestyle change” that Britain needs to adopt if we are ever to halt our downward spiral into obesity and diet-related disease.
Joanna Blythman’s latest book is ‘What To Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate’, published by Fourth Estate
Reponse from Barbara Young, Chief Executive, Diabetes UK
Our work with food and pharmaceutical companies doesn't influence our “interpretation of data and policy goals”. Diabetes UK has a long history of providing evidence-based advice to people with diabetes and those at risk of Type 2 diabetes.
We are pleased to have been chosen as Tesco's National Charity Partner because it means we will be able to spend £10 million on research into a vaccine for Type 1 diabetes and on supporting those who have diabetes or are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
But this has zero influence on what we think about the issues relating to Type 2 diabetes prevention and the facts on this speak for themselves. We took a strong stand on food policy when we decided not to sign up for the Responsibility Deal. We also have a track record of advising people to maintain a healthy weight to reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes.
The idea that accepting money from companies inevitably impacts on our independence just does not reflect the reality of the situation.