If the unveiling of a working English Regional Kitchen at next month's IFE11 the first such innovation at a major trade show isn't enough to convince the doubters that the issue of provenance is now white-hot among consumers, a soon-to-be published Mintel report on buying British will surely sway the argument.
The research firm's latest snapshot of attitudes to provenance to be released in April shows that 76% of UK consumers now 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that buying local or regional food both supports jobs and boosts the economy at a time when the country is up against it.
"Our new survey shows just how far the link between local sourcing and local jobs has been made by shoppers," says Mintel senior food analyst Kiti Soininen. "Choosing British products over imports may once have been a 'nice-to-do,' but today it's seen as directly helping us out of recession."
While active championing of 'Britishness,' seasonality and lower food miles is well established at Waitrose which began flying the flag for local sourcing a decade ago for many of its rivals the trend is only now gaining momentum, says Kate Waddell, MD of consumer branding at consultancy Dragon Rouge.
Be it Morrisons' nostalgic 'Market Street' approach, Asda's innovative 'local sourcing hubs' or the new Tesco microsite that will help deliver £1bn of local sales for the company each year, the firm focus on origin evident at many stores "can only make sound commercial sense", she believes.
Mintel's latest study of provenance shows a surprising degree of consensus among consumers, with more than 60% of respondents saying they want to buy British meat, poultry, fish, milk, cream and bread products, and 50% looking for locally produced fresh produce.
Shoppers also rate the authenticity of provenance highly, and react cynically towards any ill-founded provenance claims South Caernarfon Creameries, for example, which will launch its new Dragon Cheddar range at IFE this year, finds that 62% of people fear at least some 'Welsh' products are of doubtful authenticity.
And a recent Local Government Regulation report has found that as many as 18% of products labelled 'local' made false claims, while a further 14% were unable to be confirmed as local and were therefore assumed to be false. The false claims were seen at similar levels across all food sectors and included blended European Union and non-EU honey being passed off as English honey.
But how committed are consumers to buying genuinely local products? "It is clear many shoppers now feel an emotional imperative in supporting local jobs by buying British, but while at least half of respondents tell us they want to see more local products on shelf, only 13% of them will make the effort to shop at farmers' markets," says Soininen.
And how 'local' does local have to be? There may be a heated debate over what constitutes 'local' the old definition was that the food had to come from within 30 miles but to many shoppers, it is virtually interchangeable with 'regional'.
Despite the semantics, Jonathan Knight, chair of the English Food and Drink Alliance, believes one thing is clear. "Whether it comes down to patriotism, being green, or simply a desire for self-sufficiency when food supply looks less secure, the appetite for regional food has overtaken organic to become the country's number one food sustainability issue, and the trend has become stronger, not weaker in the recession," he says.
"There is no doubt that the supermarkets watched askance as a small hardcore of farmers' market devotees graduated from 'picking up a nice bit of beef' to buying all sorts of groceries from farm shop outlets. That many of these tiny outlets have become destinations in their own right has really made the big boys sit up."
For a major supermarket, however, relatively small quantities of local food can present logistical problems. Distributing locally sourced lamb or leeks can be tricky through supermarket RDCs that rely on volume to make them pay, but for each store, the supply chain solution is different.
At Morrisons, for whom provenance is now a key marketing platform, being able to source products from the chain's wholly-owned farms is clearly a major advantage.
"With our own abattoirs, fruit and vegetable packing plants, bakeries and a meat and cheese processing plant, we are now one of the top five food producers in Britain," says a spokesman. "Put that together with our focus on fresh preparation in-store and we have a unique level of control over the food we sell when the quality, quantity and value are there, we will always source British first."
For Waitrose, which has just one farm albeit a 4,000-acre establishment on the River Test in Hampshire do-it-yourself sourcing of poultry or produce is only part of the equation. As much as two-thirds of its local and regional produce is now delivered direct to stores.
"Each branch opening is accompanied by a search for new small local and regional suppliers, many of which are family-run enterprises, supplying just one or a handful of local Waitrose stores," says James Newman, local and regional branch manager. "Working in partnership with our suppliers allows supply chain flexibility. It can mean that suppliers deliver directly to the branch, helping reduce their costs."
Knight wholeheartedly approves of closer, more productive relationships between multiples and small producers, but while he recognises that provenance makes for engaging brand advertising, he warns of the danger of over-claiming.
"Marketing campaigns based on provenance and low food miles must be seen to be totally accurate in their environmental claims. If it emerges that locally sourced vegetables are travelling hundreds of miles down the motorway to an RDC, only to travel back to their place of origin, hackles will be raised," he warns.
For Waddell, there is another issue here. "Sentimental ad campaigns featuring farmers wearing rustic hats and talking in funny accents tend to elicit groans among consumers. Keep it local, but don't over-egg it with too much rustic fantasy."
CJ Antal-Smith, category director for local at Asda, manages a 30-strong team devoted to smaller supplier sourcing. "It's the largest-such team in any multiple as far as I'm aware," she says, "and it is just one indication of how critical provenance is to the business."
At last count, the chain's local product portfolio amounted to 6,000 products many requested by customers from a network of more than 500 suppliers. Those numbers compare with 4,000 lines and 400 suppliers at Tesco and 2,000 lines and 600 suppliers at Waitrose.
By neatly bypassing the company's regional distribution system in favour of the eight local sourcing hubs more appropriate to smaller volumes, Asda is able to meet demand on a store-by-store basis without adding a premium to provenance, says Antal-Smith.
Antal-Smith has no doubt that buying British has strong emotional appeal. "About 42% of our customers buy local goods at least once a week and two-thirds of them do so because they see it as a way of helping the local economy and supporting 'Joe down the road.'"
Although she claims that her company "already has a disproportionate share of local when compared with other multiples" in the Kendal store for example, English Lakes ice cream outsells Ben & Jerry's by 30 to one for the present, Asda "has chosen not to shout about it or get involved in all the noise around origin".
A decade ago, the interest in local sourcing may have been more obvious among the affluent than the irredeemably bargain-chasing, but increasingly, says Jonathan Knight, concern over the economy has put provenance on the agenda for all socioeconomic groups. "It may have started out that way, but nowadays, I can assure you that provenance is no longer the preserve of the posh. Supermarkets that can offer good quality food, sourced from the UK and without a high price tag, will sweep the board."
The freshest, most inspired new ideas
Innovation is high on the agenda at this year's IFE, giving the expected 20,000 visitors a unique opportunity to investigate thousands of new products from all the key food and drink categories. New this year, the New Products Live exhibition is split into three main sections.
The New Product Display Area allows visitors to experience specially selected new products from 12 main categories, including baking and confectionery, cheese and dairy and seafood. Guests are also welcome to watch the judging and presentation of the annual Fresh Ideas Awards for inspired innovation. And, finally, food industry professionals also have access to free Future Trends Seminars organised by Mintel, providing insights into new product trends and the ever-changing attitudes of consumers. For those keen to add to their industry knowledge, The Hub offers an ideal forum for information and debate.
Taking place over the first two days of the show, confirmed speakers at the free events include: Jim Paice, minister of state for agriculture and food, Tim Smith, CEO of the FSA; Andrew Opie, director for food policy and sustainability at the BRC; and Jim Twine, commercial director of the Soil Association.
A brand new Meet the World section brings together leading international food companies, providing them with a unique and colourful forum in which to showcase the best food and drink products their countries have to offer, while the World of Olive Oil, another new must-see this year, allows delegates to sample some of the best oils from around the world.
Growing consumer interest in provenance has prompted yet another innovation at IFE11 in the form of the English Regional Kitchen, which will give a unique overview of some of the best local foods from around the country, bringing them to life through live cooking demonstrations by notable regional chefs.
The food and drink industry is about more than just food and drink. Delegates keen to keep abreast of the latest in packaging may want to drop in at Pro2Pac. Running alongside IFE, this is the UK's only event specifically designed for packaging and processing in the food and drink industry.
And for those visitors in need of some light relief, delegates can enter the whimsical world of Alice's Wonderland, where the book's central characters will be serving tea and cakes, courtesy of quality tea specialist the Mad Hatter Tea Company, which will unveil its new Flowering Tea Bloom at IFE.
an easier, cheaper message
Provenance is gaining momentum among most shoppers, and is no longer an issue that only the relatively affluent care about. Waitrose scores highest among buyers of local goods in the latest Kantar research, followed by M&S, the Co-operative Group and Sainsbury's, says Kantar Worldpanel head of communications Ed Garner.
When asked to respond to the statement "I try to buy local products wherever I can," [Kantar Worldpanel, 17,000 responses] found that among regular Waitrose shoppers, the share of 'yes' responses was 41% higher than average. But it wasn't always thus.
"As recently as 2008, when price was the only issue in town, Tesco became the biggest discounter in the country, Aldi was growing at more than 20% a year and Waitrose was flat as a pancake," he says.
But three years is a long time in grocery retailing and Garner now sees a different consumer landscape. "People want to know about the product as well as the price nowadays and provenance is the big story for many shoppers.
Although it isn't yet clear whether the big consumer concern is for local, regional or simply British food and drink, local sourcing is a far easier and cheaper message to get across to the public than the big loser in all this organic."
With organic simply not making big news anymore except in milk the multiples are in a win-win situation, he says. "Stores are learning that in terms of cost, local apples can be just the same price as regular apples. Showing a picture of a farmer and naming the orchard where the apples came from as Waitrose routinely does, for example doesn't cost them a massive amount, but it does show traceability."
When it comes to the discounters, however, Garner believes that the demands of price and provenance are not always easy to reconcile. "The multiples may be making great strides in this area, but where the hard discounters are concerned, I am yet to be convinced that their shoppers will ever put provenance on a par with cost," he says.
British Classics (The Patchwork Traditional Food Co)
Launching: March 2011
Provenance is high on the agenda for Denbighshire-based Patchwork, which is showing off its new British Classics range of ambient chicken liver-based pâtés flavoured with marmalade & whisky, mushroom & ale and rosemary & thyme.
Founded in 1982 by a home cook with just £9 to spare, Margaret Carter's home-made pâtés were initially sold in local pubs. Today, the multiple award-winning company is based in a Grade A purpose-built factory and its products are distributed to a network of farm shops, food halls, giftshops, airlines, railways and hamper companies.
Launching: March 2011
Started as a kitchen table business last year by entrepreneur Tom Lock, Moo Cluck aims to take on the ice-cream giants with an additive-free range of low-fat products created entirely with milk, cream, eggs and fruit juices. Its launch at IFE follows collaboration with industry experts to develop "the perfect, healthy ice cream".
Available in mango, blueberry and strawberry, the range is free from additives, preservatives, flavours, colours, emulsifiers and stabilisers.
Kate & Wills pie (Pieminister)
Launching: March 2011
With the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton now only a few weeks away, gourmet pie and sausage roll manufacturer Pieminister, which recently made it into The Sunday Times list of fastest-growing UK private businesses, is unveiling its limited-edition Kate & Wills pie at IFE. Made with British beef, wine, bacon, pearl onions, mushrooms and a dash of brandy, it weighs 270g and will be available from early March until the end of April.
Jamie Oliver cheeses (Avilton Foods)
Launching: March 2011
Avilton Foods will be out in force at IFE this year to showcase the highlights of Jamie Oliver's new Mediterranean food range. Jamie's Continental selection of finest cheeses includes a gorgonzola and mascarpone layered cheese, aged feta from Greece and a traditional Parmesan.
It is seven years since Avilton teamed up with Oliver to launch his first Mediterranean selection, which now ranges from pasta sauces and antipasti to bruschetta toppings much of it sourced direct from Italy.