The Customer is not Always Right: Why Supermarkets Show We Have a Problem with Evidence

Senior Researcher Charlie Ashford, Corporate Citizenship shares his views
May 18, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Last month, a group of scientists sent an open letter to ten supermarkets, accusing them of “seriously misinforming customers on health risks”.

The Voice of Young Science (VoYS) campaign says that by using “negative claims” – advertising products as free from ingredients such as MSG, aspartame, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or parabens – supermarkets are playing up unfounded health fears. Such labelling, they say, is as meaningless as marketing a “low sodium drain cleaner”, or “asbestos-free deodorant”.

In a recent speech, author Mark Lynas called the controversy over genetic modification “one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century”. Once an anti-GMO campaigner with Friends of the Earth, he has since been swayed, and now argues that “millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory”.

Why do supermarkets use negative claims? Marks & Spencer told VoYS that its products are free from GMOs due to “customer concerns”. Asda says its policies are “led by our customers”. We end up in a kind of vicious cycle, with supermarkets helping to perpetuate health scares rather than looking at the evidence.

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