Greencore factory

”Consumers are increasingly interested in where the food they eat comes from, and how it is made.”

It’s an oft-cited dictum, but one to which the food industry hasn’t always found it easy to respond.

Manufacturers are all too aware that while growing consumer interest in food production provides opportunities – those who care more can prove more loyal and, in some cases, more willing to pay a premium – it also brings plenty of challenges, particularly for mainstream food producers.

“Access all areas” may be fine if you’re a cutesy, artisanal outfit. But allowing cameras (and not those paid for by your PR department!) into large-scale, industrial food production? Best of luck to you.

Fortunately, such attitudes are beginning to change. A growing number of big-hitting manufacturers are recognising they have more to gain than lose from opening their doors to the public – the recent ‘Inside the Factory’ series on the BBC, which featured Arla, Kingsmill and Nestlé, is a case in point.

Today, Greencore joined their ranks in the form of a story in the Daily Mail about one of its sandwich factories, heavily illustrated (especially in the online version of the article) with photos detailing what’s involved in making three million sandwiches a week.

Greencore was the subject of a Mail front page about its migrant workforce earlier this year (‘Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?’), but today’s article is noteworthy for other reasons (though the point it raises about UK food’s reliance on migrant workers in the midst of an EU referendum debate is potent).

What struck me is this: the Greencore factory makes own-label sandwiches, so this is not a ‘celebration’ of an iconic food brand that can rely on emotional buy-in from shoppers. Given the level of control retailers exert over the production of their own-label lines, it’s safe to assume they will have given their blessing to this photo story on some level. That’s great news – own label is such a big part of the UK’s food & drink landscape now, consumers increasingly expect to understand how own-label products are made and by whom. It’s about time the veil of secrecy that characterises some own-label arrangements at the moment were lifted.

Sure, it can seem a risky strategy. The Mail headline sounds rather ominous (‘How they make your lunchtime sarnie’) and many of ‘them’ turn out to be migrant workers, a fact that’s dwelled on in some detail. To top it off, ‘they’ don’t even wear gloves when they assemble ‘your’ sandwiches!

This has sparked some predictable ire in the nearly 4,000 (!) comments left under the article on the Mail website so far – “Urgh, dollops of disgusting mayo and grubby hands”; “never buying sandwiches again” – yet I would argue the overriding impression left is nevertheless a positive one.

By highlighting its “no gloves” policy, Greencore is also able to explain the safety reasons behind it. Crucially, the very fact the cameras were allowed to take pictures showing staff doing their work – bare hands and all – drives home the message that this is a practice that is totally above board.

Will consumers – and retailers – ultimately reward such transparency? I believe in the long run they will. The below-the-line comments are full of ill-informed nonsense and misdirected outrage, and that makes for uncomfortable reading for the industry. But consumers won’t become more sophisticated in their views on industrial food production if they never get to see it. And retailers must recognise they have a part to play in that through the level of information they make allow to be made available about their own-label products.

Here’s hoping other manufacturers and retailers will look at this article today and feel inspired to be a little braver about opening their own doors in the future.