The great British supermarket sandwich

| 1st September 2004
Supermarket take-away sandwiches - are they such a great step forward?

The prototype of the chilled sandwich was pioneered by Marks & Spencer. This non-supermarket food retailer has always been a de facto research and development laboratory and trendsetter for Britain’s supermarket chains.

In UK supermarket terms, the M&S sandwich is a huge success story, a food-retailing breakthrough. ‘[It] is now an icon, representing freshness, quality and flavour – a welcome replacement for the previous cliché of the tired old British Rail sandwich,’ observed one industry commentator.

But is it such a great leap forward? Pre-packed in its plastic carton, the modern chilled sandwich encapsulates much that is bad about British food. The fundamental concept is flawed because, as any baker can tell you, bread should never be refrigerated. The cold and dampness caused by refrigeration kill any possibility of a proper contrast between crust and crumb. The best sandwich is the sort that any small shop can whizz up: fresh bread and rolls straight from a local baker that morning, filled on the spot and sold hours later for more or less instant consumption – a straightforward, simple, sustainable process capable of delivering an end product worth eating.

Large food retailers’ centralised systems, however, mean that sandwiches are made by a few dedicated sandwich factories – the sort that also sell to petrol stations and mass catering outfits. In 2000 one pre-packed sandwich company supplied almost a quarter of all the sandwiches sold by UK multiple retailers. You may have noticed how many sandwiches seem somewhat similar even when you buy them in different supermarket chains. This concentration of production in a few prolific companies is part of the explanation.

From these dedicated factories, sandwiches are delivered to a regional distribution centre and from there to stores. Because of the inevitable hygiene implications generated by this extended process and to survive distribution, they have to be chilled to a glacial temperature. Only certain types of techno-bread are suitable for this treatment: bread that won’t fall apart when the moisture in the filling leaks into it as it sits on the arctic takeaway shelves. This bread is sandwiched over fillings made up in the supermarket’s prepared food factories: soggy, chopped-up salad leaves, meats you recognise from the ready-meals aisles (chicken tikka, barbecue duck, etc), industrial block cheese, salty tuna and egg mayonnaise without any taste of egg.

It’s no wonder that the sandwiches make such unrewarding eating. But we buy them, even though they aren’t cheap. We’ve got used to them, because that’s the sort of sandwich supermarkets want to sell us.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004

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