Thursday, 13 November 2008

Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More (Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

Marks and Spencer have responded swiftly to my most recent post. Amazingly, they have addressed my central question - why will they not sell cooked chicken that I can season myself instead of adding salt for me? This is what they said:

Thank you for contacting me again.

Whilst I do agree that supplying a chicken without any salt would solve some concerns about the level of salt being consumed by the public, ultimately we need to offer products on our shelves that are going to sell in order to remain open for business.

Research with our tasting panels has shown that this is not what the public on the whole is looking for and that they do want our chicken to have a small amount of salt added to enhance its flavour.

Whilst reducing salt in the diet is an important factor for many people, I feel it prudent to point out that a small amount of salt is actually recommended in the government's guidelines on nutrition. Our Technologists do bear these guidelines in mind at all times when considering seasoning our products.

I also feel it appropriate to point out that the majority of our customers shop with us for the simplicity and ease with which they can cook our food. Most customers don't mind paying slightly higher prices for products they can take home and conveniently cook without having to go to lengths to add flavour to the product.

Turning to our Technologist's research into this matter, you have my assurance that she isn't simply waiting for mail to arrive before taking action. The tasting panels themselves form part of the research they conduct and these have shown time and again that customers do want their products to be pre-seasoned to enhance the flavour.

Whilst I can't discuss the ins and outs of our Technologists job profile, I can assure you that they are continually researching whether our products need improving and if so how this can be done. We are well known for our innovation in the food market and I am confident that this reputation is well deserved given the excellent range of products we have on offer at this time.

As mentioned previously, we don't have any plans to offer a 'season to taste' chicken as we don't believe there is sufficient demand to make this commercially viable. However, we will continue to conduct our internal research into such matters and will continue to listen to the feedback of the public through our regular tasting sessions and independent customer feedback such as yours. Should we ever feel there is a market for such a product, we will of course act accordingly.

I believe that the above, in addition to my previous emails, has answered all of the points you have raised and do now hope you will feel able to bring this matter to a close.

So finally they have spelled out what we all knew to be the case from the start - that this is all about commercial viability and customer demand - in other words, money. They are a business, they have shareholders and as such are required to make money for those shareholders.

There are many nuanced arguments we could explore around whether supply drives demand or demand drives supply when it comes to the taste of food - and the extent to which a supposed commitment to the health of customers should mean that more effort is made to
drive demand with some risk to short term profit. However, for now I intend to cut Marks and Spencer some slack. If I were feeling pedantic I would pick them up on their latest idea that they should put salt the chicken because the government says so, but I'm not, so I won't.

They deserve a great deal of credit of one thing: their willingness to engage. Throughout this correspondence I have taken a determinedly devil's-advocate stance, sometimes taking literally their points, often choosing to feign ignorance of the commercial pressures that apply (which is of course necessary or we'd make no progress at all.) Their Customer Services department and then the Chairman's Office did try to palm me off with the standard flannel about helping customers be healthier - but they spent significant time corresponding on this matter and ultimately made absolutely clear their position and motives.

In these financially tight times I would far rather a company like Marks and Spencer stayed in business than some of the slippery vendors who have entirely failed to respond in recent months. So for the time being I will let Marks and Spencer devote their time to making money and hope that this exchange and your comments have given them ideas that lead to healthier foods in the long term and helped them to see the value a more honest dialogue with their customers.

As for the slippery vendors, I think it will soon be time to publish a roll-call of shame. Sun Ridge Farms, for example, whose sugar-riddled pseudo trail mix ("All Natural Golden Gate Bridge Mix") is marketed as a healthy snack...

The Series:
Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More (Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy


Anonymous said...

Most of all, I am impressed with their willingess to respond and engage in communication about their products. Also, while they used a lot of jargon and rhetoric, they did approach their responses with a certain amount of honesty. This does gain them some merit of respect in my eyes but i still won't be eating their salted chicken!

My Year Without said...

Here's to Marks and Spencer for their "willingness to engage" and to be honest!

Having owned a business once, I would be suspicious of any company that didn't mention their need to make money as their motivating factor.

David Csonka said...

I think, more importantly, this highlighted the fact that the company is providing what the majority of their customers are asking for. Salt and sugar.

Obviously, we know that sugar and salt in excess can be problematic.

But, this company is in the business of selling things people want. If more people demanded a product without sugar and salt, then I imagine they would find a profitable way to provide it.

The problem is the consumer, not the company, in my opinion.

Methuselah said...

David - I tend to agree. The question then arises, can the consumer be relied upon to solve this problem they have created. We are then faced with the dilemma between a nanny state in which people are healthier, or a state in which people are trusted to make the right decisions, but often do not, meaning, overall, people are less healthy....

Anonymous said...

I don't really get why you have to hassle them so much about this. I've, personally, never even HEARD of this company, so I don't know what their food tastes like, but it sounds to ME like they are very aware of what goes into their products. So what if there are some small amounts of salt and sugar in the chicken...I'm sure we've ALL eaten MUCH worse than what they are selling. And OF COURSE they're worried about consumer demand; they're a business! Why would they sell a product that not enough people are going to buy? That would be stupid and a waste of money. Considering they answered all of your emails, I'm pretty sure they care about what the customer wants. If there was REALLY a demand for "seasoned to taste" chicken, I think they would sell it. ¬_¬

Methuselah said...

Anon, M&S is a UK company so if you're elsewhere they will not be familiar. As I say in the post, I do cut them some slack for being so responsive. I also acknowledge that they are a business who need to make money. My point is that by selling overly seasoned food they, along with other vendors, affect the palate of their customers. Their chicken would taste bland without salt because their customers are accustomed to eating salty food.... because it's all they can buy. This leaves people like me, who avoid salt and sugar, to suffer uneccesary saltiness. I am not saying they are bad people, or that this is morally wrong. Just that it's an unfortunate state of affairs it would nice to see resolved.

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