There’s just no pleasing some people. Philip Clarke had barely left the stage at the NFU conference in Birmingham yesterday, when the naysayers began to pipe up. Tesco is committing to buying more British meat? “Pah,” they cried. “Nothing but a cynical grab for some good publicity. They’ll have British producers over a barrel and hammer down prices, and they’ll probably still shove cheap foreign stuff into tertiary lines.”
Others opined, “they’re only doing this because they got caught out in the horsemeat scandal” (a line much favoured by people who think the sourcing pledge is a great idea, but hate the fact Tesco came up with it). Well yes, of course they’re doing it because they got caught out – but that’s also true of absolutely everyone else who’s been rushing to announce “wide-ranging and industry-leading” DNA tests on their products over the past few weeks.
It’s also true that some other retailers had UK sourcing pledges in place before the horsemeat scandal kicked off, and that Tesco could have discovered its passionate love for the British farmer and grower a little earlier. But that doesn’t make the pledge it has made now meaningless: yes, this particular horse has bolted, but there’s still every reason to repair the stable door.
And Tesco has been throwing a lot of weight behind its pledge: in addition to Clarke’s appearance at the NFU conference yesterday and a flurry of media interviews, we had another round of ads in the papers today. Plus, a new website – tescofoodnews.com – went live last night, giving consumers updates on DNA tests on Tesco products. That’s an impressive effort, and it’s worth saying so.
But of course questions still remain. The specifics on some of Tesco’s commitments are a tad vague (fresh chicken will be UK-only from July, but other chicken products will only become so “over time”), and I thought Clarke’s use of the term “British Isles” – as in, “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” – was unnecessarily ambiguous. As Tesco has since clarified, British Isles indeed means the UK and Ireland, so why not just say so in the first place?
I also look forward to Tesco providing more specific answers on what exactly it’s doing in its supply chain to prevent another horsemeat-style fiasco. Sourcing more fresh British chicken is lovely, but I am yet to see how it addresses the horse DNA problem in frozen beef burgers and ready meals.
As Clarke himself said in his op-ed in The Sun yesterday, Tesco was already committed to sourcing only British and Irish beef for its products – and it still ended up with horse in them. “We were let down, and our instruction to use only British and Irish beef wasn’t followed,” Clarke wrote, but as a provider of food to millions of consumers, Tesco has a unique moral duty to make it as difficult as possible to be “let down”. It will need to show precisely what it is doing make sure suppliers follow its instructions in the future.
Tesco has already announced it will set up a panel of independent experts to oversee its supply chain practices, and introduce cameras in its supply chain to improve transparency, but details are still scant. We don’t yet know who will be on the panel and what powers they will have, and the prospect of cameras in the supply chain leaves me uneasy: it sounds either like a pointless gimmick or positively Orwellian.
To keep up the goodwill momentum it has generated with its response to the horsemeat scandal so far, Tesco will need to provide specific details on those aspects of its “root and branch” review of its supply chain sooner rather than later. But for now, a cautious well done.