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Air Freighted Foods Get
Marks & Spencer Symbol

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 20, 2007

Marks & Spencer has unveiled a new symbol to appear on all food that has been air-freighted into the United Kingdom:

M&S UNVEILS ‘AIR FREIGHTED’ SYMBOL FOR FOOD PACKAGING

From this week, Marks & Spencer will start to label food that has been imported to the UK by air. The label, which features a small aeroplane symbol and the words ‘air freighted’, will initially appear on over 20 different food products such as beans, mangetout and strawberries, rising to 150 by the end of the year. This move is part of Marks & Spencer’s new £200m ‘eco-plan’, Plan A, which includes a commitment for M&S to become carbon neutral within five years.

Guy Farrant, Director of Food, Marks & Spencer, said: “Our customers want to know more about how food is transported into the UK. We already label all our food with its country of origin, and in many cases, we also include the name of the farmer on pack. We’re putting an aeroplane symbol on the small amount of food we transport by air because we know this is something our customers increasingly care about.”

The new labeling sits alongside M&S’ other Plan A commitments on climate change, which include:

Buying as much food from the UK and Ireland as possible

Doubling its regional food sourcing

Growing its existing local supply networks

Minimising the amount of air freighted food

Undertaking research into the carbon footprint of our food products with the Carbon Trust.

And this follows a speech by Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco at the Green City Initiative in which he also spoke of air freight:

We all know that transporting a product by air creates far higher carbon emissions than any other form of transport. So we could say, ‘let’s scrap all imports by air’.

Yet hang on a minute. Some of the poorest people on earth get their goods to market by aeroplane.

So should we just cut them off at the knee?

Two cheers for Sir Terry Leahy in recognizing the conflict in values intrinsic in deciding whether to airfreight from poor nations.

Yet there is a real question as to whether the basic premise of these efforts — that as Sir Terry says: “We all know that transporting a product by air creates far higher carbon emissions than any other form of transport” — is in fact true.

We are reminded of the insight of the then-chairman and CEO of American Airlines, Robert Crandall who, when confronted with Peoples Express, a non-Union start-up with expenses far lower than those of American Airlines, did not accept his advisors’ notion that, in the end, Peoples Express would triumph.

In fact he looked at American Airlines, noted that its planes often flew half empty and declared that he had control of the lowest cost airline in the world — those seats that AA’s was flying empty around the globe.

He developed innovations such as the Saturday night stay requirement and two-week advance purchase requirements to keep his business travelers paying full fare, then he sold the other half of the plane to leisure travelers at prices so low that Peoples Express was soon nothing but a memory.

Both Marks & Spencer and Tesco are assuming that the flights would not fly without food. Yet, in many cases, that cargo is in the bottom of a passenger airplane and is extra revenue, not the decisive tipping point on whether to offer that flight or not.

Even cargo planes are often loaded down with non-foods, and the food is just a little gravy to the operator.

Very often both flights and ships are “deadheading” back because the place they are coming from is a major importer but exports little.

My family specifically looked to locate export farming operations in locations where plentiful imports and scarce exports made for an opportunity to make a good deal on freight rates.

Put another way, knowing that something was airfreighted tells the consumer absolutely nothing about the “carbon footprint” of that product. In fact, if the plane was going to fly anyway, and it simply flies with some empty space in the cargohold and the food vendor puts the product on a ship or truck to get it to the UK without the cursed “aeroplane symbol” being applied, then the actual amount of carbon used will go up, not down.

Utilizing the empty space on a plane is one of the most environmentally beneficial forms of transportation.

This is simply not a serious sustainability initiative, it’s a simple-minded trick to make consumers think they are doing something good for the world when, in fact, we have no idea if they do the world good or they do the world harm.

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