Is Lidl misleading shoppers for placing a New Zealand flag on – you guessed it – New Zealand lamb?

That was the suggestion this week as Twitter users, the Daily Mail and the farming press accused the discounter of ‘flag-washing’.

Things kicked off on Sunday with a tweet by retail analyst and Grocery Insight CEO Steve Dresser to his 21,000 followers. He pointed to Lidl’s own-label Birchwood lamb kebab SKU, which carried an oval-shaped roundel on its front-of-pack label. The controversy? It partly obscured the flag of New Zealand’s four red stars, representing the Southern Cross constellation.

Dresser suggested Lidl had made “strategic use of the flag so it looks almost British”. He added: “In a sea of British flags on meat, it’s not clear enough that it’s not British product.” He also highlighted Australian lamb carrying the same packaging format.

Lidl was quick to dismiss the controversy. The discounter told The Grocer it did not believe its packaging was misleading – after all, it has used the same packaging in previous years.

The lamb also carries a prominent New Zealand lamb logo on the front of pack, as well as statutory country of origin labelling next to the use by date. So there was ample information for anyone unclear on the meat’s origin. As one Twitter user said in response to Dresser: “If I cared that much, I would check”.

But that wasn’t enough to stop the ensuing wails of indignation, disappointment in Lidl and hilariously over-the-top takes. Those comments were amplified in the Daily Mail and other media outlets.

Dresser took the criticism and “flag banter” on Twitter in good heart, particularly from those Kiwis (and non-Kiwis) who insisted Lidl was legitimately using the NZ flag – which, of course, is augmented with the UK’s union flag due to its history as a former British colony. Indeed, one user from Aotearoa stated: “Dude, that’s literally our flag.”

But amid all the jokes, Dresser also made a serious point by questioning whether we should have more prominent messaging on packs around country of origin.

That suggestion couldn’t be more topical, given the emergence of a major National Food crime Unit investigation a fortnight ago into imported beef being sold as British.

And it’s hardly the first time supermarkets have faced criticism over dodgy labelling, particularly when it comes to fresh food. Just look at the controversy over Tesco’s fake farm brands as a case in point back in 2016. Many others have followed since.

Aldi, for example, faced criticism this week for selling Polish mushrooms in British packaging – a move it later described as a “packaging error” (the mushrooms actually turned out to be British on this occasion).

But in the case of Lidl’s latest brouhaha, there is an even more sensitive issue under the surface: lamb sourcing. This has increasingly come under the spotlight following the UK’s signing of a trade deal with New Zealand last year

National Sheep Association CEO Phil Stocker, for one, believes Lidl’s packaging highlights a more serious problem. The “disgraceful” labelling, coupled with Aldi reneging on its policy to source 100% British lamb last month, reflected an increased confidence by retailers to source more New Zealand lamb, he argued.

The growing presence of a significantly cheaper imported product on UK supermarket shelves was “pegging back UK prices too”, he added – something decidedly unwelcome in the face of soaring production costs for UK farmers.

So, while the scale of controversy over Lidl’s labelling may be unfounded – as one Twitter user summed up, it was nothing more than an example of canny “packaging shithousery” – it arguably points to a deeper issue. And that’s about support for British farmers, rather than the correct use of flags.