NEWS ANALYSIS: New ingredients in the the food giants’ battle - Supermarkets are showing initiative when it comes to putting safe, ethically sourced food on their shelves. The fringe benefit is that it’s a powerful PR tool

First it was charges of ’rip-off Britain’ and an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading into price fixing, then price wars. Competition between the UK’s four big supermarket chains - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Safeway - has led to customer confusion and widespread distrust.

First it was charges of ’rip-off Britain’ and an investigation by

the Office of Fair Trading into price fixing, then price wars.

Competition between the UK’s four big supermarket chains - Tesco, Asda,

Sainsbury’s and Safeway - has led to customer confusion and widespread

distrust.



Smaller food retailers have chosen to sidestep this price battle and

concentrate on consumers’ other great concern, food safety. With a

string of health scares from UK beef to Belgium pork, frozen food

expert, Icelandhas been concentrating on its ’Foods You Can Trust’

initiative.



This encompasses a range of programmes covering issues from food safety

and additives to animal welfare. As the first food retail chain to

remove genetically modified ingredients from its own label products,

since October the supermarket has extended its ban to artificial

colours, flavours and, where safe, preservatives.



Over recent years, Iceland has also tackled other causes close to

consumers’ hearts, such as the environment. It is about to launch a new

range of competitively priced organic products and is already selling

its Green Peace-endorsed, ozone-friendly Kyoto fridges and freezers.



’An ethical approach to doing business is absolutely at the core of our

company values, so it’s an important message to communicate to all

audiences from shareholders to customers on a day to day basis,’ says

Iceland head of PR Hilary Berg.



To help deliver these messages to consumers and government, Iceland is

weighing up the advantages of hiring in external public affairs and

consumer PR support. ’At the moment, we’re examining our options and

pulling together a formal PR strategy for next year,’ says Berg.



In the meantime, Iceland is increasing its in-house team to gain a

competitive edge in consumer, corporate and retail coverage.



Other supermarkets such as Budgens have also championed the consumer’s

cause by introducing a ban on additives and GM ingredients in own-label

products. But some competitors and the media have challenged

manufacturers’ GM-free claims, and questioned the contribution own

branded products make to their overall sales.



’Sourcing GM-free foods is very complex and there are all sorts of

problems, such as monitoring animal feed,’ says Alan McLaughlin

corporate affairs manager for Tesco. He highlights that it is almost

impossible to follow the food chain down to its roots and guarantee that

there is absolutely no trace of GM derivatives.



While working with Greenpeace over GM sourcing, Tesco has chosen not to

use this issue as marketing strategy as yet, and McLaughlin says: ’We

won’t, because saying foods are GM-free is just inviting somebody to

knock you off your pedestal.’



Some would argue that currently Tesco is too cosy at the top of the

supermarket pile to throw its marketing budget behind such matters, and

the retailer is the first to admit that price is still flavour of the

year. But in 1994, alongside the Co-op, Tesco was one of the first

supermarkets to embrace the RSPCA’s Freedom Food campaign - an

initiative to encourage farmers to improve the welfare of livestock. And

it remains the only large food retailer to carry the Freedom Food

endorsement on all produce on its fresh meat counters.



However public opinion on food issues tends to go in cycles and British

beef aside, there is no getting away from GM foods as this year’s hot

potato. Following Iceland’s lead last year, Sainsbury’s set up a GM

information line in February, which received over 3,000 calls within the

first two days and removed GM ingredients from its own label products in

March this year. Marks and Spencer announced at the end of June, that it

had eliminated GM ingredients from almost all its food brands and

followed this up with an announcement that it was working to source meat

fed on a vegetarian, GM-free diet. It is easy to view such moves as a

cynical attempt to gain PR mileage rather than bring benefits to the

customer, but most food retailers feel they are simply responding to

what the public wants.



’Whatever is happening product-wise or technically, we will seek to make

it part of our coverage,’ says food press and PR manager Sue Sadler ’but

primarily it’s about staying customer focused’. In recent months M&S PR

activity has encompassed an extension to its organic food range and

affirmation of its policy to sell only free range eggs.



But McLaughlin remains convinced that while some people may criticise

Tesco for not taking a stronger line in the GM debate, the public simply

wants knowledge. ’Consumers drive our business’, he says, ’so it is all

about listening to customers who have an insatiable appetite for

information.’ To this end, Tesco works hard to electronically brief its

100,000-plus customer-facing staff on the latest food issues as they

develop.



With Safeway appointing a new chief executive last week and Somerfield

announcing the loss of 1,000 jobs, including the sale of 350 KwikSave

outlets it only recently bought, it is clear that the supermarket sector

is under pressure. Taking an ethical approach to food issues may well

prove to be a winning recipe for some, but there will always be those

looking to shoot such efforts down.



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