NFU lawyers are looking into the legal implications of the use of ‘fictional farms’ on labels to promote food products by Tesco and other retailers.
The issue shot to prominence last month after Tesco launched a new range of meat and fresh produce with labels carrying fictional farm names, such as Boswell Farms beef steaks and Woodside Farms sausages, prompting a furious reaction from farmers.
NFU livestock chairman Charles Sercombe said Tesco was not the only retailer engaged in the practice, which he said had ‘been going across the retail sector for a long time’.
He said consumers who bought the products felt they were getting a ‘better product with known provenance from a local supplier’.
“This is well and good when it is British product going in there. But when you see imported products under those labels it devalues it completely. At best it is misleading, at worst it is conning the consumer,” he told the NFU council on Tuesday.
NFU Wales deputy president John Davies said the labels represented a ‘clear and present danger’ all sectors of the industry and called for ‘positive action and leadership’ from the NFU leadership team on the issue.
He said: “These fictional farms are completely unacceptable. It is misleading the consumer and I believe it is open to legal challenge under food chain information regulation.
“Enough is enough, the gloves need to come off and we need to put the full power of our legal team behind a legal challenge. We need to do it after a full scoping exercise to see what’s happening with all the retailers and we make sure we are consistent and clear.”
He said the NFU needed to act in order to ’connect more with the consumer’ and show retailers ‘we are there, we are powerful and we are strong if they step across the line’.
While it is understood there are no immediate plans for legal action, NFU deputy president Minette Batters assured Mr Davies the NFU’s legal team was ‘already looking at this’ and promised to update NFU council once more information was available.
She said the products were ‘flying off the shelves’ but said processors had expressed concern they were in the value range, meaning the eating quality ‘is not going to be great’. “So there is a wider problem attached to this,” she said.
A Tesco spokesman said: "We created these brands to represent the quality specifications that go into every product across the range.
"Every product is sourced from a selection of farms and growers - some are small, family-run farms while others are of a larger scale."
Products under the brands, which Tesco describes as 'entry tier products', come from a range of countries. All products are ‘clearly labelled with country of origin on the front of pack’, while the Union Jack is ‘prominently displayed on all British produce’, the spokesman said.
Tesco has made it clear it has no intention of ditching the brands, which have proved popular with customers.
The spokesman said: “Tesco customers are among the savviest in the country and they understand that one farm could not possibly supply Tesco given our scale and the vast range of products that they want to buy from us.”
Tesco said all its beef comes from farms in the UK or Ireland, all its fresh chicken from British farms.
Following the council meeting NFU Deputy President Minette Batters said: “A united and passionate NFU Council made their feelings known about what they perceive to be misleading labelling.
"We believe products sold under British fictional farms names are proving a popular way of engaging with consumers.
"However, farmers are very concerned that this can be misleading to shoppers, especially when some retailers are using these same brand names on imported products.
"Tesco’s introduction of new ‘farm’ brands to replace the ‘Value’ produce range is an example of this and is not specific to British produce."
She made no further reference to legal issues but added: "The NFU is already in talks with retailers about how we can make best use of British farm branding.
"British farming has a great story to tell and we would be delighted to work with retailers on 'real farm branding' that rightly informs consumers of where their food come from."