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Giles Whittell: This Sceptred Aisle

Thursday 4 March 2021

The post-Brexit British supermarket bombards you with Union Jack product branding. But food nationalism – crude as it can be – is mostly a myth in a system of global supply chains


“Don’t forget,” a friend said when she heard I was researching a story on food nationalism. “British chorizo sucks.”

I promised not to forget and set off for the supermarket to get angry. 

In the past five years it’s been hard to avoid the wave of Union-Jackery breaking over British food. In Scotland, it’s more often the saltire and in Wales the dragon but in England, the Union Flag is everywhere. On carrots, bread, apples, ham, cheese, chicken, milk. It’s there in neat rectangles on steaks, perky roundels on your peppered mackerel, flashes peeking out from behind wordier labelling on eggs and bacon, and right across the back of bags of Maris Pipers. 

It’s there in green and blue, purple and blue and (on Jolly Hog smoked back bacon) black and white. And even when it isn’t there, the word usually is: “British” in large font on puny bags of chives and coriander, like 17 year-olds being marched to the front in uniforms two sizes too big.

Heaven forbid you might eat something grown in Britain without being excitedly aware of its nationality. 

For an unrepentant member of the original Remain-voting 16 million, this stuff is hard to push a trolley past. It inspires the exact opposite of patriotism; a yearning for supermarket aisles that don’t rub your nose in forced national team spirit. And so for a while now I’ve actively avoided buying anything that trumpets its Britishness. If it costs a little more from France, I buy a little less. 

This was a private thing, until last week. Then Franco Manca tried to sell me on the merits of  British mozzarella and I snapped. I asked them about it, and it’s complicated, and we’ll get to that, but still. British mozzarella. Who do they think I am? Who do they think we are?

The context of any British debate on food nationalism and security is formed by Covid as well as Brexit. We learned recently that Downing Street finds echoes of the wartime need for food security in the present need to make our own medical supplies. The UK now makes two-thirds of its PPE, up from 1 per cent a year ago. It hosts six big bioreactors for making vaccines, and there are only a few dozen in the world. Globalisation is on hold. Self-sufficiency is back. Brace, brace, for a Tory industrial strategy based on everything Britain would like to be world-beating at.

There is clearly a practical case for autarky in a pandemic, especially in a country that’s just cut itself off from the nearest big trading bloc. But I don’t think it’s practicality that is wrapping our food in the flag. I don’t think it’s a concern for food miles or quality either. New Zealand lamb has a lower carbon footprint than Welsh even after being shipped half-way around the world, and no one believes Anchor butter’s better than Président because it’s British.

I think the rationale for nationalist food livery is visceral; a dog whistle from head office. “We [think we] know what you want, and by jingo we’re going to give it to you.”

Head office doesn’t put it like that, of course. When asked about food nationalism they talk carefully, not for quotation, about the passion and pride of their suppliers and how keen their customers are to know where their food comes from. 

In fairness, this seems to be true of customers everywhere. Around the time of the EU referendum Herman Lelieveldt, a political scientist at the University of Utrecht, wrote that three-quarters of EU citizens wanted to know which country their food came from and that this “fits in with the revival of nationalism that we see everywhere across Europe”. Five years on, he says gastronationalism is even more conspicuous, especially in the dairy aisles, and notes that the Czech Republic is introducing legislation forcing supermarkets to source 55 per cent of all food products locally from next year, rising to 73 per cent by 2028. 

So we are not alone. Here in Britain, we are with the revanchistes of Eastern Europe. Even so, I wanted to test the theory that British gastronationalism is the most rancid of all, and to do so I conducted a three-pronged research project using spies, the web and old-fashioned shoe leather reporting.

The spies were split. A Tortoise correspondent in Calvados said French food tends to emphasise regional over national provenance, and an old friend in Berlin said he’d never seen the German flag on any item of food. But another Berlin informant said he had – mainly on cheap pork products – and from Rome came photographs of cheese, flour, lemons, peanuts, pears and orange juice all in Italian national colours. 

The web was split, too. I attempted two controlled experiments, comparing the first page of results when searching for root veg on the websites of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Carrefour (in France) and Rewe (in Germany); and the same thing for beef for Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Carrefour and Kaufland (in Germany).

The British pages had Union Jacks on between 15 and 50 per cent of root veg items and between 10 and 82 per cent of beef items compared with none at all on the packaging visible on the French and German pages. However, there was a digital-only heart-shaped Qualität aus Deutschland sign on five of 45 items shown on the Kaufland fleisch page, and the vast majority of French items in both categories had a digital only French Tricolore

The shoe-leather reporting was a revelation. It produced all the material in paragraphs three and four of this article, which was enough to fill a couple of pages of a notebook but not enough, in all honesty, to overwhelm me or the supermarket. I could not get angry. I left feeling quite calm. The vast majority of product lines in your local Sainsbury’s do not carry Union Jacks because they are wholly or partially imported, especially in winter, when half of all the UK’s food comes from abroad and the share of lettuces sourced from the EU swings from 10 to 90 per cent. That’s just the kind of place the UK is. 

The British mozzarella served on Franco Manca pizzas is made for them by an Italian in Somerset. They usually offer genuine Italian bufala for an extra £2.35 but on the night I lost my rag  they’d run out, maybe because of Brexit. As for British chorizo in Sainsbury’s, there wasn’t any, maybe because it sucks.