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
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’
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
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.