12 Apr 2013

Are supermarkets returning to Frankenstein foods?

Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer withdraw their ban on non-GM fed birds, hours after Tesco and Co-op, marking the end of an ethical shopping initiative. What does it mean for consumers?

Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have become the latest supermarkets to drop their commitment to “non-GM fed” birds.

Sainsbury’s said that new global farming methods meant it could no longer promise that its birds had a diet free of GM material, as it lifted its own ban on such products starting from Monday. The M&S ban starts today.

It follows the Co-op, which made the announcement this morning, and Tesco, which made the announcement yesterday. The move means Britain’s “big four” supermarkets – Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s – no longer offer regular own-brand poultry on a GM-free diet, spelling the the end of an ethical shopping initiative dating back more than a decade.

Scourge of British foods

Before the economic crisis, Britain was in the grip of an ethical shopping boom. The fruit shakes were organic and the fish ethically sourced. Conscience came at a premium that most middle classes shoppers would happily pay. Genetically modified ingredients were the scourge of British foods, and few supermarkets would stock them for fear of sparking a rebellion.

Yet despite the protestations, we now know that many were consuming GM without even knowing. Meat from cattle-fed GM soya was legally sold without labelling, and some caterers used GM vegetable oil without telling diners. But all that was before the horsemeat scandal.

Yesterday, Tesco announced it was lifting its decade-long “no-GM” pledge, conceding it could not guarantee its birds were not fed on a GM-free soya. Today the Co-op has followed, insisting that global farming methods had made it “increasingly untenable”. Morrisons and Asda have also abandoned the pledge.

Both admissions were earnest, honest and made within 12 hours of one another. It triggered two more announcements this afternoon.

Why the switch?

Non-GM soya is increasingly difficult to source as big global producers switch to cheaper and more efficient production methods.

Agricultural superpowers like the US and Brazil grow GM maize and soya, and supermarkets appear unable to change this.

Today the Co-operative Group said in a statement: “Our own-brand chicken and turkey supplier has informed us that they are no longer able to guarantee that the animal feed they are using is non-GM, so we are no longer able to guarantee that our own-brand chicken and turkey has been fed a non-GM diet.”

Experts believe this is a deliberate move to avoid another food-related scandal. Martin Humphrey, of Organic UK, says: “This is an issue that has been brewing for years, but in the light of ‘horsegate’ simply can’t be ignored. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to segregate GM and non-GM food and retailers are taking a pro-active approach.”

M&S said: “We can now no longer guarantee that our fresh meat has been fed on a non-GM diet. Our organic fresh meat ranges will still be available to customers who want to consider an alternative option.”

Sainsbury’s meanwhile blamed the shortage of GM crop, saying “it has become increasingly difficult to source guaranteed non-GM feed in the short term”. It will, however, offer non-GM fed products through its Organic and Taste the Difference range.

Britain – still ‘frankincensed’?

What is the consequences of all this? Fierce public opposition to so-called “Frankenstein foods” has dwindled since its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the switch is still likely to rankle. Opponents of GM crops say not enough is known about the long-term implications of genetic engineering and four bans in such quick succession is symptomatic of supermarket’s desire not to be left alienated.

Research from the Food Standards Agency suggests 67 per cent of the public want clear labelling if a food product is from animals that are fed from genetically modified plants. Meanwhile a poll of more than 1,000 shoppers by Leatherhead Food Research has found that more than 80 per cent are unsure or negative in their attitude to food, while more than half thought the main impact of GM food is to financially benefit supermarkets.

“There is still a stigma with the idea of mixing food and science and GM remains something misunderstood and feared,” says analyst Nicole Patterson.

But that may change. A decade ago supermarkets feared customers voting with their feet. In today’s recession, bar costlier organic products, the direction of global farming offers few cheap alternatives.