Stephen Jardine: Separate fiction from fact to help farmers

Tesco and other supermarkets have been criticised for the use of fictitious farms in their branding. Picture: John Devlin

Tesco and other supermarkets have been criticised for the use of fictitious farms in their branding. Picture: John Devlin

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The annual conference of Scotland Food & Drink ended last week in unusual fashion.

After a morning listening to booming business statistics and inspirational speakers, all eyes turned to the president of NFU Scotland. His closing address was stark.

Allan Bowie told the delegates there would be no flourishing food and drink sector in the future unless the concerns of primary producers are heard. In a passionate address, he warned talking of success was meaningless unless the rewards are shared through fairer margins being passed on to farmers and crofters.

This week, the problems facing Scottish agriculture were clear for all to see. New statistics show farm incomes halved in the last four years. One in five Scottish farm businesses actually traded at a loss in the same period.

Spiralling costs, a squeeze on markets, increased competition and reduced support have been factors in the decline and with commodity prices falling, the outlook is worse than ever. On that basis, the words of the NFUS president sound like sage advice rather than gloomy predictions.

If we all need to support frontline farm producers at this time, greatest responsibility rests with the supermarkets.

With their enormous buying power, the multiple retailers have already been castigated for the damage they have done to the dairy industry by driving down prices.

Now they are under attack again. Tesco came under fire this week from the NFU for so-called “fictional farm” labelling. Despite sounding plausible, Redmere Farms and Rosedene Farms don’t exist. They are Tesco own-label brands created to capitalise on the appetite for farm shops and farmers’ markets. Some produce comes from abroad.

Tesco denies this is misleading. “We’ve named the brands after farms to represent the quality specifications that go into every product,” said a spokesperson.

Tesco isn’t alone in going down this route. Marks and Spencer offers Oakham Chicken and Lochmuir Salmon while Aldi has its own Ashfield Farms brand. In the real world these places don’t exist, but does it matter?

If it is a quality product, delivered to strict specifications, is the place of origin of any genuine consequence? After all, the supermarkets are not farm shops but instead giant retailers forced to compete on the basis of price. No-one complains that Quaker Oats aren’t produced by genuine Quakers so why should creating a fictitious farm matter?

It matters because consumers demand transparency. In the light of the Horsegate scandal, British shoppers want to know exactly what they were being sold and where it came from.

So product authenticity really matters and retailer loyalty depends on customers believing they are getting the real story.

The fictional farm saga would be unfortunate at any time but when real farmers are seriously struggling, it looks bad.

Supermarkets need to ditch the fiction and concentrate on the reality. Why make up farms when our real farms at home so desperately need support to help them survive?

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