In the spring of 2016 Tesco launched a line of meat and fresh produce under a series of farm names which replaced their Everyday Value 'basics' range. However the produce was found to come from manufacturers with no relation to the names on the packaging of the final product
In spring 2016 Tesco launched a line of meat and fresh produce under a series of farm names which replace their existing Everyday Value 'basics' range. The line offers whole chicken from Willow Farms, mince from Boswell farms, and blueberries picked from Rosedene Farms. But what’s the beef here? These produces were found to come from manufacturers with no relation to the names on the packaging of the final product. The farms are fictional, with some of the foods imported from overseas and given British names that connote localness, provenance, and a sense of place (see reference 1). The National Farmers Union has noted that the practice of using fictional farm names has also been undertaken by other supermarket chains such as Aldi and Lidl (see reference 2).
Tesco is the second largest retailer in the world (after Walmart) and Europe’s largest private employer. It made global sales of over £70 billion in 2014. In the UK, there are around 3,300 stores (Business Insider, 2015). Tesco is British agriculture’s biggest customer it dominates more than 72% of the market (The Guardian, 2015; Kantar World Panel, 2015). As a transnational cooperation (TNC) the finance and capital of Tesco has to be managed as part of a wider capital market community. Similarly, the marketing of brands within this TNC must be constructed and maintained as part of the development of the company. In this in-depth article on Tesco’s ‘fictitious farms’ we explore the geographical processes of branding, selling food stories, consumer anxiety surrounding where food comes from and conclude by considering alternatives to supermarkets that dominate the global food supply chain.
Poultry accounts for around half (49%) of all meat eaten in the UK and the British poultry meat industry produces approximately 875 million chickens, 17 million turkeys, 16 million ducks and 250,000 geese a year for consumption (The Guardian, 2016). Food security scares such as the horsemeat scandal have created an age of consumer anxiety that leaves supermarkets under increasing pressure to improve transparency and to provide information about where its food comes from. Celebrity chefs, such as Hugh Fernley Whittingstall have brought production processes to the attention of television audiences and have encouraged people to consider how their food is made, or indeed ‘raised’. Geographer, Peter Jackson (2010) explains that subsequently, consumers are often worried about making the ‘right’ choices whilst food producers and retailers live in constant fear that consumers will exercise their right to spend their money elsewhere. The result is that provenance is increasingly valued by consumers and producers alike.
The term provenance refers to the geographical origins of a particular product. It is similar to authenticity, in that it evokes a relationship between food and place, and heritage and tradition. It means that products such as Melton Mowbray pork pies, Cornish clotted cream, and Jersey Royal potatoes are valued not just for their taste, but the assurance of quality and historical value that come with their association with particular places (see reference 3). This relationship is co-productive, for example, not only is Cornish Clotted Cream made in Cornwall, but food associated with Cornwall shapes our perception, or imagination of this South West region and the marketing of place and products (see The Guardian, 2014).
Provenance, much like sense of place, is a slippery concept and can be easily exploited for commercial gain. In some case, this might involve deliberate deception, such as the packing and selling of beef and poultry with an unknown origin (for example, The Food Standards Agency found that 60% of ham and cheese pizzas do not contain either ham, or cheese). Or, it may involve the invocation of a loose connection between food and place to reassure consumers. This process of making, connecting, and managing the meaning of foods is, therefore, geographical. Social and cultural symbols, meanings and processes shape our understanding of food as it moves along the supply chain ‘from farm to fork’. In doing so, geographer Andy Pike (2015), expert in geographies of brand and branding explains: “strategies, techniques and practices seek carefully to create, manage, rework and sometimes obscure the provenance of where goods are made and/or services are delivered from, and the economic, social, political, cultural and ecological conditions where and under which they are organised”.
Tesco is not the first to employ these sorts of imaginations to sell food. Marks and Spencer deployed similar symbolic connections with its Oakham Chicken: M&S, branded a whole line of its chicken as though from a place called ‘Oakham’. In reality, these chickens come from farms as far apart as Northern Ireland and the Suffolk coast, whilst Oakham is indeed, a town, none of the poultry was produced here. For geographer Peter Jackson (2009) this reflects the current moral economy around chicken that is caught up in a generalised yearning for less intensive modes of production, coupled with a specific sense of nostalgia for ‘chicken to taste like it used to’.
Professor David Hughes from Imperial College London an expert on food marketing said: “when it comes to fresh produce and fresh food, then from a consumer point of view if there's a farm name there, the understanding from a consumer perspective is that it reflects a true farm. That isn't the case. It seems misleading.” Food producers increasingly employ “imaginary geographies” in the way they story particular brands. According to research by retail agencies, brand names that reference to the natural environment and rural, historic, England create a sense of reassurance among shoppers. As academic Gail Hollander (2003) suggests: marketing strategies increasingly deploy geographical knowledges that emphasise freshness, environmental ‘friendliness’, and social justice.
As Peter Jackson et al, (2009) explain: “there is an attempt to establish a kind of fictional provenance, grounded spatially in ideas of regional specificity and temporally through a generalised nostalgia for ‘countryside imagery and nice places”. So, then ‘farms’ as a geographical imagination connote idyllic space, ‘natural’ environments, locality, an opportunity for slow living compared to the fast pace of modern life and therefore more sustainable and just environment for food production. This reality is false in two ways: firstly, because the physical space of Tesco’s farms, such as Rosebury farm, does not exist in physical terms, secondly, because farm life, and rural space more broadly, is not necessarily idyllic. Rather it conveys the idea of the ‘rural idyll’: the process by which dominant myths about rural places and spaces, such as close-knit community life and being close to nature, come to reflect picturesque beauty, tranquillity and harmonious living that often conceal complex social and environmental issues that can be experienced as part of rural life.
The notion of rural idyll is made through media representation and popular culture. For example, the Olympic Opening Ceremony 2012 permeated national and international perceptions of the UK, Britishness, and included scenes of pastoral life. On a more everyday scale, adverts for food and food outlets work with notions of rurality, rural idylls and ‘nature’ to create, often imaginary, locations that will appeal to consumers’ sense of place and locality that brands nurture. This is echoed by geographer Paul Cloke (2014), who suggests the advertising industry repeatedly borrows from the treasure chest of positive meanings vested in the countryside.
Take a look at the links below. Consider the way that rural life is displayed in these television advertisements.
McDonalds UK, 100% British Potatoes
McDonalds UK, 100% British Beef
Country Life Butter, British Butter
Identify and describe the various images, people, places, sounds and experiences that appear on the videos. Who, or where is represented?
Analyse how these work to provide a sense of place that may appeal to consumers and help to construct their brand as 'British'.
Tesco have suggested that consumers are savvy and do not expect farms to be ‘real’, they have argued that: “some of the commentators don’t really give any credit for how marketing savvy some UK customers are… Do they know that one single farm is not big enough to be able to supply Tesco? They do. Do they know that one single farm does not supply everything across all product forms? Yes… what was really important to them was do they come from farms? Well clearly they do.”
According to Tesco, names such as Nightingale and Rosedene, had previously been operating farms and was selected in partnership with its supplier: “in all cases, the fresh food being sold under our new brands is sourced from a selection of farms and growers. Some are small, family-run farms while others are of a larger scale – and every product has been reared or grown to specific standards from known and audited farms and growers”. According to the National Farmers Union, British farmers produce about 62% of our food supply (NFU, 2016). UK farmers’ contribution to the economy has grown by £3.1 billion or 45% to £10 billion in the last five years. In response to the Tesco range the National Farmers Union made this statement “It’s vital that shoppers have accurate, clear labelling on the origin of any British food or drink product in order to make an informed choice about what they are buying.
The NFU says that Tesco labels may give customers a false idea of where the produce is sourced, and have argued for more transparency and honesty to help shoppers with the various policies, labelling and advertisements within the food industry. Though Tesco’s fictional places contain traces of real farms and may represent the produce of several growers, consumers feel deceived by these new brands that suggest seven distinct places that do not exist but rather evoke “provenance-type imagery”. In contrast Waitrose have launched a TV campaign that will use footage shot that day from its UK suppliers under so-called ‘cow cams’. Whilst, these farms may be more ‘real’ than fictional there is still a sense of employing certain rural and ‘natural’ imagery to sell food with provenance, with a story, with a place and ultimately reveals the complex geographies behind brands and branding of products.
This article has illustrated the dominance of the global food supply chain by large TNCs such as Tesco. However, increasingly there are alternatives by way of consuming food associated with small scale, family run production and visible geographical proximity to its manufacture. In her recent paper for RGS-IBG journal Area, academic Sarah James (2016) suggests local farm production and retail spaces such as farmers markets can offer a viable alternative to large TNC retailers’ dominance over the market. However, through interviews with farmers in Sydney Australia, James found that the continued dominance of supermarkets on the global food system, threatens the long term viability of small producers and growers.
Places such as farmers markets can provide alternative retail spaces for growers, and offers consumers a chance to consume something local with a transparent food chain. Although, economically the dominance of supermarkets makes it difficult for local farmers and farms to be a viable, sustainable, alternative for consumers who may not be able to afford higher prices. James (2016) suggest that ‘unless the continued influence of the mainstream food system, and supermarkets in particular, on small-scale farmers is acknowledged and addressed, the socially just and sustainable food system desired by local food advocates will not be realised’.
Read the full article by Sarah W James here: Beyond ‘local’ food: how supermarkets and consumer choice affect the economic viability of small-scale family farms in Sydney, Australia. Area, 48 (1) 103 -110.
Visit Tesco online to research one of the ‘farms’ : Redmere Farms, Suntrail Farms, Rosedene Farms, Nightingale Farms, Woodside Farms, Willow Farms, Boswell Farms. Using an A3 map of the world ask pupils to map the connections of ONE of Tesco’s fictional farms to areas around the world where produce is sourced from.
Ask pupils to choose one historical or contemporary brand or branding campaign related to a particular food product and critically analyse the geographical entanglements it presents.
What sort of place does the brand suggest as its place of origin?
How does the brand achieve this? Images, music, animation?
Who is the brand aimed for? What sort of spaces, and by what sort of people will it be consumed?
Why might this audience have particular ‘geographies’ aimed at them? Gender? Class?
What sort of consumer anxiety might this audience have and seek assurance from the branding?
How do these geographies match the reality of the production? Is the product made in the global south but marketed as ‘British’? Is this fair? To the producers and consumers?
Whatever we do shops tell us to be cheaper: the growing crisis in Britain’s farms, The Telegraph, 2016
Backing British Farming in a Volatile World, Report, 2015
National Farmers Union supermarket souring guide, The Guardian, 2016
Tesco cutesy fake farm names are an insult to the British countryside, The Telegraph, 2016
The supermarket takes us for mugs, and we let them, The Guardian, 2016
Farmers and Growers, Soil Association
Tesco’s Fictional Farms, The Guardian, 2016
The Mystery of Oakham Chicken, The Telegraph, 2010
Tesco under fire for farm brands which sound British but are imported, Farmers Weekly, 2016
Tesco’s Fictional Farms may be misleading, BBC, 2016
Supermarkets attacked over phoney farms, The Daily Mail, 2016
Tesco made up fictional farms, The Independent, 2016
Tescos new range of meat is from another made up farm, The Metro, 2016
Waitrose ads go live on the farm, The Guardian, 2016
Freidberg, S. (2003) Editorial: Not all sweetness and light: New cultural geographies of food. Social and Cultural Geography. 4 (1) 3-6
Hollander, G. M (2003) Re-naturalizing sugar: Narratives of place, production and consumption. Social and Cultural Geography. 4 (1) 59-74
Jackson, P et al (2009) Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibility
James, S (2016) Beyond ‘local’ food: how supermarkets and consumer choice affect the economic viability of small-scale family farms in Sydney, Australia. Area, 48 (1) 103 -110
Pike, A. (2011) Placing brands and branding: a socio-spatial biography of Newcastle Brown Ale. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Wood, S, Wrigley, N. and Coe, N (2015) Capital discipline and financial market relations in retail globalization: insights from the case of Tesco plc
The horsemeat scandal and other food geographies, 2013
Follow the thing: Papaya, 2012
Tesco accused of using fictional British sounding farm names (The Telegraph)
New Tesco Farm branding - NFU response
Protected food name scheme (Full list)
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