Do fake farms have a future?

Supermarkets are divided over the value of the invented brands but it remains to be seen whether shoppers can be persuaded to care. By David Burrows.

In April 2016 Tesco revamped its fresh produce lines with a series of new brands, including Redmere Farms for veg, Rosedene Farms for fruits and Boswell Farms for beef. It seemed like a great idea, until stories emerged that none of these farms existed.

Though the manure hit the media fan and the likes of the National Farmers Union kicked up a stink, the bad smell didn’t linger long enough for shoppers to change their habits: in fact, 64% of baskets contain at least one item from the fake farms. The (potentially risky) move was “one of the largest factors in [Tesco’s] recovery from losing market share and margin”, explains Molly Johnson-Jones, a senior analyst at Globaldata.

Buoyed by Tesco’s figures and in a similar attempt to fend off the discounters (who, it’s worth noting, have long been dreaming up farms to market their products), Asda followed suit. In April this year the retailer reintroduced the Farm Stores label for its value food range. “We’re reconnecting with our heritage by bringing back the Farm Stores brand to Asda – a name that our customers remember and trust for great value quality produce,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

But last week Morrisons bucked the trend, by committing to “not stocking fake farm own-brand products”. The ranges “give an impression that food comes from a British farm, market or town when it may in fact be imported from overseas”, the supermarket claims. So whose policy will pay off?

In April 2017, when writing about the fuss created by Tesco’s farm fudge, I wondered whether people really care about these issues. Sure, there was a Twitter storm, but when it comes to the crunch it’s the price tag that counts for most shoppers – and that will only intensify as Brexit bites and food costs (by many accounts) rocket.

Morrisons argues otherwise, of course. Its own research, published last week, showed that 70% of UK adults object to the use of fake farm brands and “only want real place names or farm names to be used on packaging and branding”. That doesn’t mean they won’t buy these brands (consciously or unwittingly) if the price is right.

There’s plenty of research showing that the vast majority of shoppers want to buy responsibly sourced, environmentally friendly, locally produced food – but one only need look at sales of organic food (1.5% of total UK food and drink market) to see shoppers say one thing and do another.

YouGov also recently reported that one in five people say they are more likely to buy British food after Brexit because they want to support the domestic economy, but if prices rise many will look for cheaper foreign alternatives. If the cost of British food increased by 10%, three in 10 people who look to buy it would choose foreign produce instead. If prices jumped 25%, six in 10 would switch away from British.

It’s easy to see why, in those circumstances, a product that looks and feels British but isn’t could sell extremely well. Does this mean the rules on labelling need to be tightened?

Tesco and Asda aren’t doing anything wrong legally, but neither are the brands selling milk from megadairies in bottles adorned with cows happily grazing in pastures green. “Supermarket customers are sometimes presented with misleading images of farmers on their food,” explains Morrisons’ head of British livestock, Joe Mannion.

More worrying, however, is the fact that many wouldn’t know what a farm or farmer looked like. Morrisons’ poll discovered that 46% of Brits have never met a farmer, 32% have never visited a working farm and 52% say they don’t know how the food they buy is grown. Brexit is an opportunity to educate the public about the food system, and that could spell the end of fake farms.

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