Stephen Jardine: Waitrose gets sheepish over its label confusion

Supermarket made a bad mistake over origin of its lamb ready meals says Stephen Jardine

Waitrose came under fire over a labelling error just after being named Britain's best supermarket. Picture: Dan Phillips.
Waitrose came under fire over a labelling error just after being named Britain's best supermarket. Picture: Dan Phillips.

In the cut-throat world of supermarkets, being crowned Britain’s best for the third year in a row is quite an achievement. Waitrose received the accolade from a consumer group after it again topped the poll for customer satisfaction. So it should have been the best week of the year for the high-end retailer, until along came a major error of judgment.

As the champagne was still fizzing from the Best Supermarket win, a storm was growing on social media. Food campaigners had spotted that lamb ready meals in the Waitrose British range were actually made with New Zealand lamb. That’s right, a product labelled British Lamb Hot Pot actually contained no British lamb.

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To add insult to injury, when consumers started complaining about being misled, Waitrose tried to brazen it out by tweeting: “British is the name of the range of meals denoting the origin of the recipe.” That simply further outraged shoppers online with some comparing the move to the Horsegate scandal.

Waitrose have since gone to great lengths to insist they had not set out to deliberately deceive shoppers. Following representations from the NFU, stickers making clear the meal contained New Zealand lamb were added to packs. Now the supermarket is to rebrand the entire range Classic instead of British. “We understand why confusion has arisen,” admitted a spokeswoman.

Whatever the motives, a story like this is the last thing anyone needs right now is bad news. With another lambing season underway, farmers are already concerned about prices under the looming shadow of Brexit. They rely on British supermarkets and consumers to support their industry. If that doesn’t happen, the outlook is bleak.

As for shoppers, scare after scandal has seriously dented consumer confidence and left people confused and less willing to trust a label. They want to be able to buy something knowing it is what it claims to be. That’s not too much to ask.

“The inclusion of the word ‘British’ in the brand name despite the meat being sourced from New Zealand is misleading for shoppers - and it’s frustrating for British farmers, especially those who produce lamb Waitrose could have sourced,” said the President of the NFU.

That is the other major issue in all this. Why is Waitrose importing lamb from the other side of the globe and leaving behind a vast carbon footprint when we have some of the best lamb in the world right here in Scotland?

Supply problems are no excuse. The Co-op is switching to selling 100 per cent British lamb from May, using a variety of native breeds that produce young at different times of the year. The move will benefit up to 1,700 Scottish, English and Welsh sheep farmers.

For some of them, the Waitrise story has been the final straw. James Rebanks farms 600 sheep in the Lake District and tweets about his life as the Herdwick Shepherd. On social media he accused Waitrose of being dishonest and misleading. In a poll of his followers, 97 per cent of the 5,000 who voted agreed labelling a ready meal containing New Zealand as British was “unacceptable and a lie”.

But will this do more than slightly dent the reputation of Waitrose?

Perthshire sheep farmer Jim Fairlie launched the Farmers Market movement in Scotland to try to rebuild trust with consumers. He believes tough action is now needed.

“This story is an absolute disgrace,” he said. We’ve got supermarkets making up farm names and now Waitrose using British as a brand product name which is clearly to make people believe it is using British lamb. “Unless the Government’s supermarket adjudicator gets some real teeth in all areas, this sort of mis-selling will continue.”

Last year the British Government launched a consultation to look at extending the influence and muscle of the supermarket ombudsman. With power comes responsibility, and if our big supermarkets won’t accept that, something needs to change.