Stephen Jardine: Scottish produce is in demand overseas

Even if Tesco is removing the saltire from strawberries says Stephen Jardine

Tesco removed the Saltire from Scottish strawberries in England. Picture: TSPL
Tesco removed the Saltire from Scottish strawberries in England. Picture: TSPL

Earlier this week, Scotland’s foremost historian Sir Tom Devine gave a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Scotland’s place in the Union.

The headlines the next day surrounded his suggestion that the Brexit vote had weakened the case for independence.

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Away from that controversy, Devine made another observation. Acknowledging the anti-English hostility which exists amongst some Scots, Devine said it was important to understand it is countered by a strain of anti-Scottish feeling in England.

This week that may have bubbled to the surface in a tangible way. In removing the saltire from the packaging of strawberries, Tesco claimed on social media to be acting to “avoid further criticism” from English customers.

Within hours the company changed position, claiming no complaints had been made and the switch to the Union flag on packaging was simply to ensure consistency.

So what’s the real story?

To understand this involves an appreciation of the massive effort and resource which goes into food and drink packaging.

Nothing is left to chance. Colours are selected to push subliminal buttons with consumers and every aspect of the look and feel is designed to say ‘buy me’. If that seems far fetched, take a look at Marks and Spencer’s Lochmuir salmon brand which conjures up images of the west coast of Scotland at it’s beautiful best. Except Lochmuir doesn’t exist. It is a marketing device to make the product more attractive.

With our heightened sense of national self-awareness at the moment, the Saltire has that same effect here in Scotland but how well does that travel?

Turn the clock back a decade and we were much less concerned about where our food came from. The packaging stated country of origin but that was a technical stipulation rather than a promotional tool. Since then numerous food scares have created the need for greater reassurance.

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Over this time farmers’ markets boomed because consumers could put a face and a name to the produce. Supermarkets now emulate this trick with packaging tracing food back to specific farms and growers.

Overseas brand Scottish is in demand. Asian consumers who love whisky trust the same clear water responsible for our national drink to give them delicious fish and shellfish and they will pay a premium for it.

But is that appetite now waning south of the border due to fatigue with the independence issue?

You don’t have to look far on social media posts related to the Tesco decision to see plenty of comments about ‘moaning jocks’. But what seemed to bother English consumers most was not the presence of Saltires but the absence of the St George’s Cross on produce.

To counteract that, Tesco may well have decided to take a uniform approach to packaging with the Union flag offering consistency.

But it’s also possible supermarket chiefs are keen to smooth any potential antagonism out of the purchasing decision now or in the future. In other words, anything which might make the customer hesitate simply has to go.