A ruling against Pret A Manger for using the word natural in its marketing could open the floodgates to similar complaints. By Nick Hughes.
What exactly do we mean by “natural” food? The question has been at the centre of an intriguing dispute between Pret A Manger and the Real Bread Campaign which culminated recently in Pret being forced to remove certain online marketing materials relating to claims made about its sandwich bread.
In April, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled in favour of Sustain, the food and farming alliance of which the Real Bread Campaign is a member, in a judgement that should act as a cautionary tale for any food operator marketing their products using generic descriptions such as natural, “fresh” and “pure”.
The row centred on Pret’s sandwiches, which Pret confirmed contained a number of E-numbers for the purposes of strengthening the dough, reducing the number of large holes in the bread and softening the crumb.
Sustain complained that Pret was using language on its website and Facebook page that both expressed and implied that all its products were natural and free from artificial additives. This included statements such as: “Our sandwiches, salads and baguettes […] are made using fresh, natural ingredients which get dropped off to each shop before dawn”.
Pret defended the accusations, arguing that the ads should be viewed in the context of its mission statement "to create handmade, natural food, avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the 'prepared' and 'fast' food on the market today".
Pret argued that Sustain had mischaracterised its mission statement as an absolute, objective claim rather than an ideal state, pointing out that it only claimed to "avoid" chemicals, additives and preservatives rather than eliminate them entirely.
The ASA, however, considered that while consumers might interpret the claims in the mission statement to mean that it was Pret’s aim or goal, the other claims were not expressed in these terms, noting that consumers were likely to interpret those claims to mean Pret’s foods were natural, as they did not contain obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives.
Pret was told the offending ads must not appear again in their current form, and indeed a Pret spokesperson confirms it has since made the necessary changes on its website and Facebook page.
Absorbing as the case has been to follow, of more relevance to food businesses is how the ASA reached its decision and what implications the verdict may have for use of other common food descriptions.
Anyone holding the impression that the use of a term like natural is covered in one, straightforward piece of legislation would be wrong. In fact, the Pret verdict hinged on what consumer expectations of a natural food would be since the term is not defined in law. The same is true of other generic descriptions such as pure, fresh, “traditional” and “homemade”, all of which feature routinely on pub, restaurant and other out of home menus.
Food law is notoriously complex. There are numerous pieces of legislation at the both the national and EU level that cover aspects such as ingredients lists, health claims, and food and drink warnings. But these invariably relate to specific ingredients or explicit claims. It’s at the point where food information meets marketing spiel that things begin to get decidedly foggy.
In its verdict, the ASA made repeated references to a guidance document last updated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) back in 2008, the aim of which was to help businesses decide when such descriptions could be used and when they should not.
On use of the term natural the guidance states: “Natural means essentially that the product is comprised of natural ingredients, e.g. ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.” It goes on to say that it is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings, that are the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.
The ASA used the FSA’s guidance as a central plank of its justification for upholding Sustain’s complaint. Yet, as Pret pointed out in its defence, the guidance is not legally binding. Nor has it been updated for 10 years. And the likelihood of it being updated any time soon appears slim. That’s because the FSA, in England at least, ceded responsibility for food labelling and food composition policies to DEFRA back in 2010. The guidance no longer appears on the FSA’s website, while DEFRA initially seemed unaware of its existence when contacted by Footprint. Ultimately, a spokesperson confirmed that it remains the most current guidance in this area and noted that responsibility for enforcement rests with trading standards and local authorities (this is true for claims made on products and other in-store materials, but not for those made online, in print or in other broadcast or non-broadcast media where responsibility sits with the industry-funded ASA).
This matters because, as the FSA notes in its guidance, the accepted meaning of words changes over time. For an example, we need look no further than a second complaint by Sustain relating to Pret baking some of its products “in-house throughout the day”, which was not upheld. Sustain argued that because some products were supplied frozen and then ‘baked-off’ in Pret stores the claim to bake them in-house was misleading.
The 2008 FSA guidance states that: “Terms such as ‘freshly baked’, ‘baked in store’ and ‘oven fresh’ may mislead consumers into believing that they are being offered products that have been freshly produced on site from basic raw materials.”
The ASA, however, reasoned that, 10 years on, consumers would be familiar with the practice of national chain outlets selling standardised ranges of products which were assembled in store but contained ingredients which had been delivered from elsewhere, including products which had been part-baked off-site or delivered as raw dough and baked in-store. “Given that context, we considered that consumers were unlikely to interpret ‘baked in store’ to mean only products that were made from scratch using basic raw materials such as flour and butter,” it concluded.
Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign maintains its position that “most people do not believe that freshly baked bread means baked twice”. And Young believes that, while a legal definition for such terminology would be preferable, as a minimum requirement new guidance is necessary, not least because of the growing number of generic descriptions that are not covered by the 2008 document.
Young says a new wave of mass-produced foods with descriptions like “wholegrain”, “sourdough” or “artisan” are being marketed that bear scant relation to their traditional method of production. He argues that appropriation of these terms by big brands to associate themselves with small-scale, independent producers means that those same small producers are unable to differentiate the quality of their produce because they don’t have comparable marketing budgets.
The Pret verdict can only serve to embolden those producers who feel it’s time to take decisive action to protect the integrity of their methods.
In the meantime, the row over Pret’s use of the word natural rumbles on. Back in December 2016 the Real Bread Campaign submitted a parallel complaint relating to similar claims made by Pret about shunning obscure chemicals that appear on posters, wall boards, napkins, stickers, product packaging, window displays and other marketing material in its outlets to the trading standards department of Hackney Council, which forwarded it to Westminster City Council, Pret’s primary authority.
At the time of writing the council still hasn’t completed its investigation, despite persistent chasing by Young and his team.
Pret, for its part, says it has been working hard to change the formulation of its sandwich bread to remove any additives, but adds that it has yet to find one that meets the standards its customers expect.
In many ways, the company has been the unfortunate guinea pig for an industry that habitually, and liberally, uses ambiguous terms that are open to (mis)interpretation. Who’s to say another adjudicator would not have reached a different conclusion?
For the time being, there seems only one definitive answer to the question of what exactly do we mean by natural food?