Fake Farms & Ugly Truths

We’re calling time on the imaginary agriculturalists whose smokescreens can be traced all the way back to the rainforests

Pick up a pack of tomatoes in Tescos from Nightingale Farms or chicken from Aldi’s Ashfield Farm and you assume they are farm-fresh products direct from select producers with traceable provenance. Think again. These are ‘fake farm’ brands whose sole aim is to give the impression that they come from English smallholdings, when this couldn’t be further from the truth, with devastating consequences.

It could be a mass-produced tomato from an unsustainable, plastic-covered, Spanish holding, or intensively reared, factory-farmed meat that’s polluting British rivers. With its images of traditional tractors, animals on grass and healthy trees, it’s easy to be fooled by branding that has a bucolic air to it. Every single day, shoppers are duped and it’s an issue emblematic of a deeply dysfunctional UK food system.

For the last six years, a number of big supermarkets have sold fake farm brands despite threats of legal actionconsumer campaigns and angry farmer groups rightfully raging about deceit, but to no avail. Back in 2016 there was a media frenzy, as the race to the bottom of the grocery market saw fake farm labels proliferate. At the time, Tesco’s former chief executive, Dave Lewis, told The Independent: “Our new fresh food brands are performing very well, with over two-thirds of our customers having bought products from the new range.” 

The issue went quiet through the fog of Brexit, the pandemic then pinched consumers’ pockets and the cost-of-living crisis set in. During this shaky period, Tesco continued to fill their shelves with fake brands from the likes of Willow and Redmere Farms, seven in total, with reassuring messaging such as ‘trusted,’ ‘stringent quality’ and ‘high standards,’ while Aldi ploughed on with its own fictional farm labels, with zero motivation to change. 

Wholly unethical, yet inarguably profitable, David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London, points out that “for Tesco, using fake farm brands has worked out really well in terms of securing the lower end of the market against really hot competition.”

Earlier this year the issue reared its head again with headlines such as ‘Pressure mounts to ban supermarkets use of fake farm names’ in the Daily Express and ‘Calls to ban fake farm names’ in the Daily Mail with fresh pleas from Riverford’s founder Guy Singh-Watson to ditch them. This was part of evidence given to UK Parliament, which is investigating supermarket superpower. There is also an ongoing government consultation on making food labelling fairer, which is focused on country of origin and method of production. 

Should supermarkets do what they want?

The big question now is, should supermarkets be allowed to get away with this? The consensus is no. Are these fake brands hiding bad farm practices? Of course. But the fact is, we don’t have the data because there is no direct route to any of these ‘farms’. They don’t exist. And what goes on inside the ‘units’ or factories supplying Woodside or Suntrail Farms is impossible to fathom and that lack of clarity on provenance and production suits the supermarkets just fine. 

Yet there are a few things we do know. 

Tesco buys chicken from Avara Foods, one of the UK’s biggest food producers owned by US multinational Cargill. In 2020, the Guardian and partners uncovered evidence that Cargill supplied Tesco, Asda, McDonald’s, Nando’s and others with chicken fed on imported soya linked to thousands of forest fires and at least 300 sq miles of tree clearance in the Cerrado savannah. These are fake ‘British’ farms that can be traced all the way back to the rainforests.

Tesco sells chicken under its Willow Farm brand. Avara Foods now faces a multi-million pound legal case over pollution of the River Wye from law firm Leigh Day. The industrial scale of the issue, involving 23 million chickens at any one time is mind boggling, affecting 4,000 square kilometres of land in England and Wales, two and a half times the size of Greater London. It’s not a farm, but an Intensive Poultry Unit (IPU) – despite the bucolic name on the packet.

“People are going into Tescos purchasing Willow Farm chickens supplied by Avara and not knowing that these products are potentially contributing to the destruction of this river. Fake farm brands give the sense of wholesome, small-scale production, masking the reality of industrial systems that produce so much of our groceries,” explains Rob Percival, Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association. 

“Look behind these brands and they can also be unethical in terms of how they treat farmers. You have tens of thousands of producers potentially supplying into these single fake brands, disadvantaging farmers as well as consumers.” 

“95 per cent of our food is sold through just 10 retailers. This means farmers have very little negotiating power. The ‘just in time’ retail model, while efficient on the surface, creates a fragile system that often leads to overproduction and environmental harm. Will White, Sustainable Farming Campaign Coordinator at Sustain

Pedalling food poverty

The number one aim of fake farm branding is to provide subliminal reassurance when consumers make split second decisions as they shop, and it works. Why? 

“They give people that touchy feely, very non-specific idea about food origin, with traditional images of what a farm may look like, and it’s all part of the mythology around food that supermarkets are pedalling. Where food is cheap, yet marketed as being of high quality with provenance, which we know is far from the truth. Labelling is just one part of this story,” states Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Director of Campaigns at Feedback. 

“There’s a difference between Willow Farm and an actual farm where a family has been toiling for generations and prides themselves on high standards and the way that they actually rear, raise or grow. Until you have strong alternatives to supermarkets, it’s very hard to control their behaviour because there’s so little regulation.”

Do shoppers care? Several polls show that yes, they do. Back in 2017, Morrison’s did their own research and found that 70 per cent of adults ‘objected to the use of fictitious farm brands and only wanted genuine place or farm names on packaging and branding’. They’ve since taken the word ‘farm’ out of their fake farm range, while Asda’s ‘Farm Stores’ range, launched in 2017, was replaced with ‘Just Essentials’ in 2022.

Even those consumers who may care less aren’t given the option – you can’t make an informed choice with no information, and therein lies the rub. In other sectors such as egg production, mandatory method of production labelling in the past has successfully shifted purchasing towards free-range eggs in the UK. Accurate labelling can work. 

French supermarket giant Carrefour has successfully used QR codes and blockchain technology, allowing consumers to scan codes on own-brand organic products with fully transparent data on the origin, quality and method of production.  

Lack of political will

In an election year it will be interesting to see whether either party gets tough on food labelling. Both Labour and Conservatives have received some of their biggest donations from John and David Sainsbury, respectively.

“It’s lack of political will and inaction that’s led to the fact that this is going on and on. All labels should have data from the farm up, not from the top down. This isn’t just about animal welfare and method of production. It’s about everything. It’s about how you produce vegetables. Do you use pesticides? Do you farm in a regenerative way?” states Fidelity Weston, the Chair of CLEAR, the Consortium on Labelling for the Environment, Animal welfare and Regenerative farming.

“And it has to be mandatory on all products and audited independently, otherwise you get a voluntary labelling scheme, where the supermarkets mark their own homework and a situation where the worst food isn’t even labelled. So, the poorest in society have the least choice about where to spend their money, because there’s no accurate labelling on their food.”

David Exwood, Deputy President of the National Farmers Union, agrees: “Food labels must be clear, simple and contain accurate information, including country of origin, to give shoppers easy access to the information they want, and for those that want to select products produced by British farmers and growers which they know are traceable, safe and produced to high animal welfare and environmental standards.”

“It simply cannot be right that the big supermarkets walk away with so much money, when the people who actually put in the work to produce the food are not seeing it,” says Richard Foord, MP for Tiverton and Honiton. “The majority of British producers run fragile businesses that are already subject to the vagaries of the weather, without being held hostage by the key players in the food supply chain.”

Beyond the table

The lack of action on fake farm brands could not only be putting real farmers out of business, it could even be fuelling food poverty and the climate crisis.

“95 per cent of our food is sold through just 10 retailers,’ says Will White, Sustainable Farming Campaign Coordinator at Sustain. ‘This means farmers have very little negotiating power. The ‘just in time’ retail model, while efficient on the surface, creates a fragile system that often leads to overproduction and environmental harm.

Evidence also shows that huge amounts of money are extracted out of the system as costs and profits. Sustain’s Unpicking Food Prices report reveals that farmers often receive less than 1p of the profit from their produce. With 40% of farms earning less than £25,000 annually, small-scale agroecological farming is becoming financially unviable,” concludes White.

And it’s not just farmers who are squeezed to the brink. Research shows that food insecure households are more likely to rely on supermarket-branded products, which means the big supermarkets have an even greater responsibility to do more in this area. 

“Politicians have also recognised that consumers do have a role in supporting climate change by being able to make the right choices, but you can only make the right choices with the right labelling, particularly when it comes to ecolabels. This should be a citizenship right. For farmers and food suppliers to label their food honestly and for citizens to know that these labels are truthful, it’s just bleeding obvious,” concludes Weston. 

Spotted a fake farm brand on the shelf? Share and tag us on Instagram @wickedleeksmag, or email a pic to wickedleeks@riverford.co.uk

Affected by the pollution of the River Wye? Join the public claim, here.


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