ANALYSIS - The British Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has been dragged in the middle of a row about production and provenance between Tesco and Sainsbury, two of Britain's leading supermarkets, writes Chris Harris.
The row centres on a price match campaign by Tesco comparing products with other leading supermarkets and offering customers money back if they can get the same products cheaper in other supermarkets.
Sainsbury had complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over the advertisement offering the price match, because it said that Tesco was not taking all aspects of the goods it was price matching into account.
Sainsbury maintained that aspects of production and provenance such as Fairtrade goods or British produced meat products could not be compared with products that were not Fair Trade or did not have special welfare guarantees attached to them or were made from non-British ingredients.
Tesco in its defence to the ASA said: “Where the sourcing of ingredients for a particular product in the British Isles was the key factor, Tesco reflected that in their matches.
“They had regard for the results of their own customer research when determining whether an ingredient's provenance would preclude them from identifying a match under the Price Promise.
“However, they did not consider that as a matter of principle, products containing British and Irish ingredients could only be matched with competitor products of the same provenance.
“They did not believe customers would consider that to be the correct comparison to make and also that for the majority of customers, the product's country of origin would only be a minor factor in a customer's decision-making.
Tesco believed if a product had a certain certification, e.g. Fairtrade that was not always the determining factor in a customer's decision making process, especially where the retailer has taken a decision to only stock products with that certification, which they understood to be the case with Sainsbury's.”
And the Advertising Standards Authority, in not upholding SAinsbury’s complaint, agreed.
The ASA adjudication said: “Sainsbury's were concerned that non-price elements of own label products had not been taken into account or given sufficient weighting by Tesco when identifying matches for the comparison. They understood those elements were important to consumers and that reflected the outcome of their own customer research.”
But it added: “Tesco had matched its chicken korma curry, which Sainsbury's understood contained chicken sourced from outside the UK whereas the equivalent product from Sainsbury's was made with 100% British chicken.
“Sainsbury's had the same concerns about Tesco matching its Everyday Value ham (made with pork sourced from the EU) with their Basics ham (made with British pork). Tesco said that based on the findings of its own research, provenance of ingredients was not a key factor for their consumers on certain products, which was the case with those two particular products.
“Consequently, Tesco identified and matched the two products under the Price Promise. We agreed with Tesco that provenance was unlikely to be a key factor for these two products, a ready meal (chicken korma curry) and a budget choice food (ham).
“Sainsbury's also had concerns about Tesco comparing their cod and haddock fillets to Sainsbury's equivalent products which were MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified, whereas Tesco's were not.
“They had similar concerns about Tesco comparing a dozen free-range eggs to Sainsbury's free-range Woodland eggs. In relation to the cod and haddock fillets, Tesco's confirmed that all their fish came from MSC accredited fisheries.
“They understood that the Woodland eggs label was exclusive to Sainsbury's and that it meant the free-range chickens had been reared in woodland sponsored by the Woodland Trust. Tesco confirmed that all their eggs came from Freedom Food accredited farms.
“However, Tesco did not label their MSC certified or Freedom Food accredited because to do so involved paying for a licence to do so, something which they chose not to do. We considered these products were comparable.
“Tesco confirmed that where a non-price element led to a difference, but they believed it was not the determining factor in a purchasing decision, they did identify and match products.”
Earlier this year at the National Farmers Union annual conference, however, Tesco CEO Philip Clark promised to shorten the supply chain, offer more transparency about the origin of products and seek to sell British produced products.
The move came in the wake of the horse meat contamination of beef products and as part of the pledge, he promised to only sell British fresh chickens by July this year.
At the time Mr Clark said: “"Today I am announcing a sincere commitment to source more of our meat closer to home.
"Where it is reasonable to do so, we will source from British producers. And I invite the NFU and the wider industry to work with us to increase UK capacity for the production of meat and poultry.
"As a first step, I am announcing that from July, all of our fresh chicken must come from UK farms. No exceptions. We will also move over time to ensure that all the chicken in all of our products - fresh or frozen - is from the British Isles. "These commitments represent a genuine shift in how Tesco sources the products we sell. But we cannot do this without you.”
At that time, it appears that provenance and information for the consumer was paramount.
This aspect has been quickly raised by Sainsbury in the defence of their stance within the Advertising Standards Authority inquiry.
Immediately after the decision not to uphold the Sainsbury complaint, Mike Coupe, Sainsbury Commercial Director hit back.
“If there’s one big lesson that we should all have learned from the horse meat scandal, it’s that customers care deeply about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” he said.
“While no horse meat was found in any Sainsbury’s products, it’s absolutely clear to us that provenance and ethics form a fundamental part of customers’ decision making as they choose what to feed their families.
“We know this because we speak with thousands of customers every day. They tell us that food integrity matters to them just as much whether they are well-off or struggling to make ends meet.
“Well, it is obvious to us, and you’d have thought it would be obvious to Tesco. They have recently begun an attempt at recasting their ethical image and pushing fresh food credentials in a high-profile marketing campaign which encourages us to ‘love every mouthful’.
“But there's a basic contradiction between this advertising and the way they're operating their ‘Price Promise’.
“We've made a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about this.
“The arguments Tesco have used to defend their position include the suggestion that customers don’t actually care all that much about the provenance of their food or the ethical aspects of food production.”
So where do provenance, ethics, sustainability and other aspects of production that cannot be priced but do have a value come in the world of aggressive markets and trading?
Or are they now just mere marketing terms?