The Farmers Weekly poll last week asked the question “What do you think of Sainsbury’s ditching the Red Tractor”. 69%of respondents answered that they were disgusted, against 14% saying they are right to do so and 17% not caring one way or the other.
We cannot read too much into this piece of research. The question is designed to be provocative, only 874 people responded, and they probably did not think overly hard about their choice of answer.
This piece of research apart, the outraged response from many in the farming community does make you wonder about how much in touch they are with consumer trends and the way the big retailers think.
Sainsbury’s stated rationale for abandoning the Red Tractor symbol is that it clutters up the label, the EU is about to pronounce on food labelling, and too many labels lead to consumer confusion.
But, if Sainsbury’s valued the symbol, or thought that their customers valued it, a way would have been found to keep it. Why for example, is the RSPCA Freedom Foods label staying on, and, reportedly, the Irish assurance logo.
Sainsbury’s thinking may have gone something like this.
The company sets itself up as a champion of high welfare, hence its support for Freedom Food chicken and pork. As a business it feels that consumers care deeply about the issue, and that commitment to high welfare gives them an edge versus competitors, a point that chief executive Justin King pushes home at every opportunity.
They have committed by 2020 to selling all meat, poultry, eggs game and poultry products supplied by farmers who adhere to independent higher welfare standards.
The reality is that Red Tractor does not deliver the image that Sainsbury wants to portray because the Red Tractor only means that farmers have adhered to minimum legal standards. Add to this the adverse publicity experienced by Red Tractor of late including the Advertising Standards Authority judging a recent pork advertisement to be misleading, the shocking case of cruelty at a Red Tractor audited farm in Norfolk, and extensive media coverage of what the different food labels stand for with Red Tractor coming out bottom, and the value of the logo to Sainsbury suddenly looks suspect.
What about other retailers? Tesco has committed to continue with the logo. But this could change. Whilst there is still huge confusion among the majority about the facts behind the different labels, consumers are becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable by the day, prompted by campaigning groups and enabled by technology which allows instant access to the internet for research and verification.
And as consumers become ever more aware of food labels and what they stand for, the other supermarkets will review their animal welfare policies too. It is not hard to see that the Red Tractor stamp in its current form could become meaningless to them also.