When you pick up a packet of meat from the supermarket and it says ‘Willow Farms’, what is the image you conjure up in your mind? Do you imagine the chickens reared on this farm happily pecking around a thatched cottage, searching for grubs in a field that rolls gently down to a river flanked by weeping willows?
Of course you don’t. You’re shopping in Tesco and you’re not that stupid. The country’s biggest retailer (and the UK’s biggest private sector employer) is not buying any of its fresh produce from small-scale farmers, especially not its chickens.
Some of you, however, might reasonably expect that Willow Farm exists. That it has a geographical presence — even if it is on an industrial scale.
Even that is a little optimistic. Willow Farms is a brand. As is Rosedene Farms, which Tesco uses for some of its strawberries and blueberries, despite the bucolic image of an apple tree as its logo. The berries can come from as far afield as Morocco or Argentina.
This is why, when Tesco launched all these farm brands last year, the National Farmers Union were so upset, calling it a ‘cynical’ and ‘misleading’ ploy.
Tesco argued that these brands were nonetheless a stamp of quality, that the beef or chicken or strawberries — even if they were sourced from multiple locations — were produced exclusively for Tesco.
But even that claim now appears to have as much shelf life as some Redmere Farms spinach (origin: Spain) left out of the fridge on a warm summer’s day.
The sheer meaningless of the brands has been exposed as part of a far wider investigation undertaken by the Guardian newspaper and ITV.
The investigation — a good-old fashioned scoop — went undercover at 2 Sisters. This is not some backstreet operation. It is Britain’s biggest chicken processor, with a turnover of more than £3 billion a year, a company that supplies most of the large supermarket groups, including Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl. The investigation alleges that 2 Sisters has breached various food safety rules, including changing the dates on which day chickens have been killed, and picking up meat from the floor and putting it back on the production line.
Perhaps the most intriguing footage appears to show how rejected chicken, sent back from a supermarket, is repackaged. It is a relatively common practice for supermarkets to send back food to manufacturers if there is a problem with the packaging, for instance. And there is no suggestion that there was anything wrong with the chicken that had been sent back to 2 Sisters.
However, the footage from inside the 2 Sisters factory shows meat being emptied out of some Lidl packaging, being mixed with other raw chicken meat, and being put onto a line. The drumsticks re-emerge at the end of the line showing in packets saying they have come from Tesco’s Willow Farms. The labelling on the pack says the contents are ‘reared exclusively for Tesco’.
Of course, both Lidl and Tesco Willow Farms use Red Tractor standard chicken — a guarantee that it is British and reared to basic (if not free range) standards. So maybe 2 Sisters has done nothing wrong.
The law firm representing 2 Sisters Food Group, said they were taking the food hygiene and safety allegations ‘very seriously’ and added: ‘The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not. 2SFG meets the raw materials specifications for the Willow Farms brand.’
That appears to be an admission that the Willow Farms brand is utterly meaningless. Yes, Tesco owns it. But it has about as much worth as the sticky-backed label on which it is printed.
Tesco, for its part, says it is taking these ‘allegations extremely seriously and [we] will be carrying out our own rigorous investigation.’ But I wonder if, as part of this investigation, it might reconsider the use of these brands.
We are just four years on from the horsemeat scandal, which exposed the failure of many supermarket groups to audit their supply chains properly.
A large-scale study after that scandal showed that, nonetheless, consumers were twice as likely to believe a supermarket label if it was a British product than if it was from overseas. Supermarkets need to prove they have earned that trust. And they can start by being straight with consumers.