Pret a Manger est attrapé

UK sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger has been caught out by the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for claims on its website that it makes “good, natural food” by making “proper sandwiches avoiding (..) obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives”. According to the ASA the chain has misled consumers as its products contain ingredients with E-numbers. It contends consumers understood “natural” to mean foods made with ingredients straight from nature.

The ASA ruling followed food and farming charity Sustain’ challenge to Pret a Manger’s advertising claims as misleading and unsubstantiated; “claims, both expressed and implied, that Pret’s products were natural and free from artificial additives”.

Prior to the Sustain complaint and ASA ruling. Pret a Manger was approached by the Real Bread Campaign in 2015, urging the company to stop using additives. Real Bread is part of Sustain and called for an “honest crust act” that would force manufacturers to list all their ingredients. Some are left out on the basis they are just part of the processing. Sustain made the complained to the ASA after the campaign failed to make any progress. Real Bread Campaign’s coordinator, Chris Young, said: “We welcome this ban, which sets a precedent that sends a clear message to food companies that unless they walk the natural food walk, it’s misleading to talk the natural food talk”.

Pret responded to Sustain’s complaint, saying the use of the term “natural” and their references to the avoidance of obscure additives and preservatives should be viewed in the context of their mission statement. According to Pret a Manger, Sustain had mischaracterised their Mission Statement as an absolute, objective claim that the chain’s products contained only natural ingredients and were additive free. Instead the Mission Statement was expressed as an ideal state or ultimate goal. The chain pointed out it claimed to “avoid obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives” as opposed to “entirely eliminate all chemicals, additives and preservatives.”

To the casual observer this response seems like semantics rather than a substantive defence, and Pret has undertaken to make the changes to its advertising in line with the ASA ruling, as well as exploring ways to remove E- number ingredients from its processes. “We would really like to find a solution, and our food team has been working hard trialling recipes that do not use emulsifiers,” a Pret spokeswoman said. “They have not yet found one that meets the standards our customers expect.”

Natural continues to be an undefined term used by marketers to signal to customers that something that is processed it’s really not that processed, and therefore it’s better for you. After all, there’s no “natural” labels required for banana. The ASA appears to have drawn a line in the sand here with it’s ruling that E-numbers disqualify the use of this term – could it be a precedent for other products and other jurisdictions?