A major fruit supplier to Asda, The Co-op and Sainsbury's is at the centre of a pesticide controversy.
Angus Soft Fruits claims that its Good Natured Fruit and Salad range, which had sales in excess of £2.5m in 2008, do not use or contain any pesticides.
However, an Ecologist investigation has revealed that it does allow its suppliers to use them.
'Good Natured Fruits is grown without the use of pesticides,' says the Angus-based company which produces strawberries and raspberries for several of the UK's biggest chains.
In its production protocol, seen by the Ecologist, the company tells a different story.
The protocol is what Good Natured Fruits gives to third party suppliers, mostly based in the Netherlands, who provide it with the plant material it uses to grow its fruit produce.
Under a section titled, 'Pesticide Applications', it states:
'Within the protocol provision is made for the utilisation of pesticides in non-cropping phases to reduce pests and disease pressures during fruiting.
'All predator and nutritional produce applications to pesticide free crops, at any time of the year, must be fully documented in the Good Natured Fruit (GNF) application book.'
Better than organic
The protocol also reveals that the company allows chemicals to be used on the soil beds before the fruit is grown.
'Weed control in Good Natured Fruit crops should be achieved through the use of herbicides during the winter and mypex [a weed control fabric] to eliminate the need for herbicides during the cropping season,' it says.
This is despite its own website making boasts in comparison to organic produce.
'Unlike organic production, which need [sic] to be grown in the soil and therefore allows the use of certain pesticides to control pests, at Good Natured we omit this process to ensure our crops are pesticide-free,' says the GNF website.
Not relevant to consumer
Angus Soft Fruits technical director David Griffiths admitted that they did take plant material from nurseries that used 'conventional propagation techniques'.
'Those pesticides required to safe-guard plants from pests and diseases during propagation are necessary to ensure that good healthy plants are available for fruit production the following season,' he said.
When the Ecologist pointed out that its produce fails to make this clear on either its packaging or its website, Angus Soft Fruits said the issue was not 'relevant to the consumer'.
'We grow pesticide-free food,' said Mr Griffiths. 'When we actually take control of the plant material, Good Natured Fruits don't permit the use of pesticides.'
Ruth Beckmann from Pesticides Action Network UK said the company was misleading the public with its pesticide-free claims.
'The company’s not allowed to say ‘pesticide-free’ unless they don’t use any pesticides at all, from start to finish. Even most organic produce isn’t ‘pesticide free’ because there are a few pesticides allowed under organic certification,' she said.
'They could say "residue free",' she added.
Targeting young mums
The parent company of Good Natured Fruit, Angus Soft Fruits, is one of the UK's biggest soft fruit producers and a major supplier to almost all the major supermarkets.
The Scotsman reported earlier this year that it had a turnover of £65m and controlled 16 per cent of the soft fruit sector in the UK.
It launched the GNF brand to target young mums looking for safe food and boasted at the time of its launch in 2007 of being the first ‘free-from pesticide’ brand in the soft-fruit sector.
Despite the admission that pesticides are used in the life-cycle of its products, none of its supermarket outlets said they were concerned by the apparent false advertising.
The Co-op said Angus Soft Fruits had told them that, 'none of the actual fruit that goes into the Good Natured Fruit products will have been treated with pesticides.'
However, the Ecologist was shown a pesticide residue testing report from June which found small levels of a fungicide called Pyrimethanil in Good Natured Fruit's produce, although the level was well within the regulatory limits.
Asda told us: ‘Good natured is a branded product, so not controlled by us.’
Sainsbury's did not comment on the claims.
The Soil Association accused the company of confusing the public with its 'organic-like' marketing statements.
As well as its pesticide-free claims, Good Natured Fruit also declares itself to be a 'logical, better value for money alternative to organic.'
'Words like "good" and "natural" are particularly confusing to the public as they are not governed by law in the same way organic food is,' said policy director Peter Melchett.
'The public want food they can trust - that's why all food companies need to be careful about the claims they make especially when it comes to how food has been produced.
'Anything that reduces pesticide use is a good thing, but simply avoiding pesticides is a long way off organic,' he said.
Update: Since publication of this article PAN UK wished to make the following statement. 'Whilst the pesticide free label is misleading in that it implies no use of pesticides throughout the entire production process, the protocol described is a good example of pesticide reduction, likely to lead to significant benefits to human health and biodiversity.
'It is an issue for growers that there is currently no recognised label for produce grown under Integrated Pest Management (IPM) so consumers have to choose between organic‚ and conventional‚ produce, when the latter covers a wide range of environmental practice.
'It is a concern that produce labelled as pesticide free‚ contains residues; however, it should be pointed out that without further information the origin of the residues found cannot be pinpointed, and cross-contamination from other sources, whilst rare, is a possibility in all produce.
'PAN UK’s aims are to eliminate the most hazardous pesticides, reduce overall use of and dependence on pesticides, and to promote sustainable pest management. The approach of Angus Soft Fruit fits in well with these aims and PAN UK supports initiatives like these.'