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Sainsbury’s Drops Prince Charles’ Produce. British Chains Show Only Token ‘Localism’

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 28, 2007

Sainsbury’s, the number 3 British supermarket chain, apparently decided it best to take its Public Relations pain all in one swoop as it dropped two suppliers, both on one day, both without notice. A supermarket chain dropping suppliers isn’t normally a big deal, but when both are organic, and one is Prince Charles, heir to the throne and the other the head of the Soil Association, the leading advocacy group for organics, you have a PR mess.

The Guardian ran several pieces on the issue. First it ran Prince Charles Sacked by Sainsbury’s, which explained the basics:

Sainsbury’s has dropped the Prince of Wales and the head of the Soil Association as vegetable suppliers because it says their produce did not meet the right standards, the Guardian can reveal.

The move has prompted the director of the organic food and farming charity, Patrick Holden, to accuse leading supermarkets of being so centralised and industrialised that they cannot deliver the local, organic food their customers want.

Mr Holden told the Guardian he believes that he and Prince Charles have become victims of the supermarket system’s industrial processes and imposed food miles. They were sacked as suppliers of carrots to Sainsbury’s at the end of January.

He and the prince had been forced to truck their vegetables hundreds of miles from their farms to a centralised packhouse in East Anglia before they were sent back to be sold in Sainsbury’s stores local to their area.

Mr Holden believes his vegetables were of the highest quality when harvested, but the combined effects of long-distance transport, handling to create large enough batches for the machines that wash and polish the vegetables and further storing after processing to create large enough batches for packing left the vegetables damaged and prone to rot.

The system also resulted in a crop that had been grown for low environmental impact acquiring a greater carbon footprint than conventional carrots grown on an industrial scale, according to Mr Holden. Up to half the crop from the two farms was being rejected in the grading for cosmetic appearance and quality.

Mr Holden said he had decided to speak out because his case was typical. "Everyone who has supplied a supermarket owned label will have a story similar to mine to tell but most daren’t tell it for fear of being delisted. This is not confined to one supermarket. It is the unintentional consequence of the centralised supermarket distribution system."

Sainsbury’s acknowledges that dealing with small suppliers is difficult for big supermarkets, but says it works successfully with others and is willing to try to find a solution to the problems of its highest profile organic farmers. It said its overriding concern had to be the quality of the food it sold.

Put another way, Mr. Holden acknowledges his carrots were not suitable for sale to consumers — at least under Sainsbury’s present system. He is arguing that if supermarkets want to sell locally grown, organic produce, they need to develop new systems that are suitable for the more delicate nature of this product.

He also points out that for all their talk about food miles, very often a supermarket’s internal systems can impose more food miles than if something was imported from hundreds of miles away direct to the area that wants it.

Normally the Pundit would not have too much sympathy for Mr. Holden. As an importer of product from around the world, we remember sitting in our office and, almost daily, having some grower in some corner of the globe crying on the phone about our report of poor condition upon arrival or of low returns due to poor condition. Inevitably these growers would object that the product was perfect when shipped. They would offer a first class airplane ticket and plead with us to fly and see the product in its perfection in the field.

We never accepted those tickets but, instead, urged the grower to use the money to come see the product in New York. We explained the hard news: It didn’t matter how beautiful the product was in Peru or the Ivory Coast; it mattered how it looked when the consumer got to see it.

So, in our assessment Mr. Holden is simply being irrelevant when he talks about how great the carrots were upon harvesting. People buy product looking for suitability for the purpose intended. It is Mr. Holden’s job to know that his carrots are not suitable and not to sell them for that purpose.

Of course, we said “normally” we would have little sympathy for Mr. Holden. What changes our thoughts on the matter is the sanctimonious rantings of executives at British multiples about setting an example for the world on local, organics and what not. If you listen to them and believe them, one would assume that they would set up in East Anglia a local packing facility, lest they add to the carbon footprint of the product. In a sense the British chain store executives are being hoisted by their own petard.

The same day the Guardian ran a second story entitled, Sainsbury’s giant carrot washer, and the rejected royal roots, which was mostly more of the same ilk:

The saga of Mr Holden’s vegetables and the rejected royal roots involves thousands of food miles, tons of carbon emissions, enormous waste and a giant washing machine, designed to wash and polish carrots so that “when displayed on the supermarket shelf, even weeks after washing, they still look like wet, fresh carrots.”

According to Mr Holden, who has spoken exclusively to the Guardian, it is a saga that shows that the supermarkets’ current structures cannot deliver sustainable food, whatever they may claim. Sainsbury’s says its customers and quality are the final arbiters….

But Mr. Holden gets right to the system:

Mr Holden claims that in fact the supermarkets are unintentionally making it impossible for the kind of small family farms their customers imagine are behind their organic labels to supply them. “Supermarkets are preaching localism but it’s just tokenism. Their systems are still going in the opposite direction, and it’s disastrous,” he said.

The truth is that Mr. Holden was already in trouble and had made some changes to try and make the business a success:

The carrots were packed in bags that told the story of his family farm Bwlchwernen Fawr. He had switched to marketing them as his special own brand after the price paid by the supermarkets for organic carrots fell below the cost of production. “They were more expensive, but people were prepared to pay for something they trusted was local,” he said.

The Guardian did some investigative reporting of its own to look for conflicts between what the chains say and what they do:

The Guardian has found other examples of supermarkets claiming to support local organic production while falling back on centralised distribution and imports.

Organic carrots bought recently at Waitrose carry a picture of Peter Cornish, one of its “carefully selected growers,” on the back of the pack, but in small print on the front the carrots’ country of origin is listed as Italy. A bag of parsnips with the story on the back of organic English parsnips as grown by Andrew Nottage, who has won community awards for biodiversity, is sourced in Scotland. The story of watercress grown by the sparkling chalk streams of Hampshire accompanies a product imported from Portugal.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, agrees that the current structure of supermarket systems makes it impossible to deliver on their rhetoric of local food. “They are locked in to a trucking and packing system that they have invested millions in over the last 30 years. They would have to reinvest dramatically — moving from a few regional distribution centres to hundreds of more local ones for example — to become really local.”

Commenting on its packaging, Waitrose said: “The purpose of these images was to give customers a flavour of the people who grow our fruit and vegetables rather than to show the country of origin. Waitrose is genuinely committed to British, local and regional produce.” Following our call the company said that in future the pictures of growers on its packs would be consistent with the products’ country of origin.

Note that even when caught, the only concession Waitrose is willing to make is that the pictures of growers on the packages will be from the same country as the produce. Yet, clearly, the whole point is to make consumers feel safe and comfortable that the nice farmer on the package grew this produce.

It is so much easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. We wonder precisely how “green” Tesco in America is going to be?

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