The GM stance of the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets

| 30th November 1999
All he wanted to know was what the policies of the ‘big four’ supermarkets were for GM foods. But what Will Acker got was the big supermarket runaround…

The UK supermarket sector is dominated by Tesco, ASDA, Sainsburys and Morrisons. These are the only chains that operate full-scale supermarkets of 40,000 sq feet or more. There are yearly fluctuations but the ‘big 4’ currently control around 75 per cent of the UK grocery market.

This places them in a position of massive influence, and leaving this responsibility with them begs an obvious question; can we trust that the food we are eating comes with an ethos that doesn’t contradict our own? For me this brings up the issue of GM foods, which I have become increasingly concerned about. Though it is something that leading supermarkets show awareness of, I wanted to know what their real stance was and what they saw GM foods having in the future of their industry?

The first place I looked was at each supermarket’s website. Tesco’s ‘Our values’ seemed a logical place to star, but I felt the two core values ‘no-one tries harder for their customers’ and ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’ didn’t really cater for my question nor did they seem (despite being handwritten on adorable post-it note graphics) to have any real meaning.

‘Buying and selling responsibly’ seemed a more promising tab, but in reality focused mainly on ethical trading and local sourcing. Eventually I found four lines concerning GM stating that all Tesco own brand food is non-GM and all GM products are labelled.

Next I went to the ASDA website. When I looked under ‘our policies’ there was a small entry for GM foods. It stated that none of the ASDA own brand products contain GM ingredients. However ASDA uses its own definition for non-GM, which is ‘something which has been produced under strictly monitored guidelines’. The specifics of these guidelines were nowhere to be found.

Finding info on Sainsburys’ corporate responsibility pages was made difficult having to navigate past the barrage of colourful fonts and waving stickmen. So I went to the search bar and typed in "GM policy’ where I had more luck. According to their policy Sainsburys has no GM in own brand food, drink, pet food, dietary supplements and floral products and offers a range of meat and dairy that is non GM, but cannot switch all meat and dairy away form those fed on GM feed, due to cost feasibility.

Disappointingly Morrisons had no mention of GM that I could find.

I wasn’t really satisfied by the information provided online. Sainsburys was the first of the ‘Big Four’ to remove all GM from its own brand products and the efforts of the others may well be nothing more than keeping up with the Jones’. In search of clarification I decided to pursue these questions on the supermarkets’ phone lines.

There were two strands to my question and I asked each supermarket exactly the same question: ‘What does your supermarket think the impact of the addition of GM species will be on the food chain and ecology of the world and what risks are posed to human health by their consumption?’

My telephone odyssey began with the general enquiries departments who usually transferred me to customer services. Customer services, in turn, were keen for me to take up my issue with the general enquiries. More used to dealing with pedestrian queries about opening times and refunds both sectors seemed flummoxed by my unusual line of questioning. None of responses I received properly answered the question I was asking; more often than not there was an inadequate coverall response which served to paraphrase the information available online.

In truth I hadn’t expected to gain much from general enquiries or customer services and from the off felt my questions needed to be raised with someone more directly involved with the policy making, who hopefully would have a keener understanding of the topic.

Sadly none of the supermarkets I phoned would give me the name of someone at head office who might have a bit more power, and a bit more of a clue.

Occasionally I managed to slip through their nets. A less vigilant customer services advisor would connect me to the head office switchboard, but head office staff, immediately sensing I was out of my territory, would direct me back to customer services. I tried a different tack. If I got through to head office I would ask to speak to the health and safety officer; health and safety being fairly out of the loop would generally not see the harm in telling me the name of the head of CSR and a second time around I would ask for them by name. The closest my tricks took me to someone who would be able to answer my questions was an answer phone.

In the end only Sainsbury’s allowed me to escalate my concerns so that they would be answered by someone more senior, my detailed question was taken down but to my dismay the posted response was a print out version of the corporate social responsibility pages.

I was shocked that there seemed no way to know what kind of organisation I was feeding my money into. I found the secrecy that surrounded the supermarket’s policies on GM disquieting. My suspicion is that a boardroom full of internal and external shareholders cannot agree on one cohesive view of the direction the company should be taking and are waiting to see how the market and consumer demands develop.

The across the board effort to remove GM from own brand products is reassuring and appears to be a step in the right direction. But I can’t shake the belief that it may well be intended to placate concerned consumers and could disguise a long term strategy whose goals are very much at odds with the public face of these companies.

What I really want to know is the outlook these companies have on the future of GM and whether their growth is going to lead to sidelining and neglect of the potential long-term impacts of adding GM to the food chain. The past two years have seen resignations by the directors of CSR at both ASDA and Sainsbury’s. A shrewd addition to the public face of supermarkets saw David North masterminding Tesco’s 10-point community initiative, which aimed to reinvent the company as a ‘good neighbour’. Mr North is most well known for seeing off PR scares such as BSE when working at Blair’s number ten as minister for rural affairs. It seems that their commitments to CSR maybe more about fine words and less about doing.

The supermarket’s success has been built on their being fast moving companies, alert to the smallest signals in the marketplace and perhaps their policy is a fluid as the whims of the consumer. Which could mean that Tesco, ASDA and the rest, are in reality only a reflection of the demands of everyday people. Perhaps the real responsibility lies with us.

Once such dynamic companies internalise new perspectives they would be likely to excel in them as they have done in other aspects of their business. Ironically, it may be that only through such companies can non-GM, organic foods become affordable for all income brackets and not be a luxury just enjoyed by families of middle class and above.

Nevertheless memories of the honeyed, trustworthy Scottish tones on Tesco’s automated phone service come back with a biting irony. To show I care not just about price and convenience, I will be walking down to my local farmers’ market from now on. Even though, it takes a little longer, it is the quickest way I can see to force ethical transparency from such impenetrable organisations.



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