We have been seduced by the lure of organic food

Friday 16 August 2013 22:51

We have come to persuade ourselves that we are wise to all the marketing tricks in the book. In the 21st century, postmodern irony rules; we mock the credulous who used to believe advertisers' outlandish claims. Now, however, it becomes clear that our scepticism is more fragile than we like to believe. We are still easily seduced by boasts about the emperor's fabulous set of new clothes. The boy who dares to proclaim the imperial nakedness is more necessary than ever, in this media-savvy age.

All the more credit, then, to Geoffrey Hollis - no innocent waif, but a former Ministry of Agriculture mandarin - who has challenged the country's biggest supermarket chain. He has demonstrated that, even if the organic emperor may not be stark naked, he is certainly not wearing a hand-tailored Versace outfit.

Tesco suggested that its organic produce was tastier, chemical-free and only "a little more expensive" than non-organic produce. Its claims were believed by millions of customers. Commercially, Tesco knew that it was on to a winner by selling the concept of chemical-free food - "as natural as nature intended", in the soothing Tesco phrase. Sales of organic produce have more than doubled to £0.5bn in the past four years.

Mr Hollis protested to Tesco about its claims; Tesco took no notice. Today, the Advertising Standards Authority upholds Mr Hollis's complaint. Some of Tesco's claims were, it must be said, patently absurd. You do not need an economics degree to notice that organic produce is more than "a little" more expensive; 40 per cent more, Mr Hollis reckons. In addition, however, he pointed out that chemicals are used in much food labelled as organic. Suggestions to the contrary rely on our collective credulousness.

Perhaps most startling of all, Mr Hollis reckons that there is no difference in taste between organic and non-organic produce. Admittedly, only the gastronomically challenged could ignore the difference between Dutch hothouse tomatoes - the taste of watery nothingness, and little else - and the luscious real thing. But, when it comes to organic vs non-organic, it now seems that the difference is not in our tastebuds but in our heads.

It can be argued that we have nobody to blame but ourselves. If "natural", supermarket-style, is as artificial as a can of Coca-Cola, that should come as no surprise to anybody. We are, it seems, all mugs when it comes to seductive marketing. In short, nothing new.

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