How ‘Best of British’ Food Became a Marketing Ploy – Then a Political Act

In the wake of Brexit, the trend for locally sourced food – or the idea that British produce is inherently superior – has coincided with a rise in xenophobic attitudes.
Photo via Alamy Stock Photo. 

When seeing a video of garlic butter melting tantalisingly over a thick-cut, rare-cooked slab of steak, Conservative MP Michael Gove could barely contain his excitement. Well, I imagine so, because he promptly quote-tweeted it with the caption: “You can’t beat British beef.”

The former Environment Secretary encouraging us to eat beef (which, after all, has a massive carbon footprint) might seem odd, but Gove is by no means the only Tory to develop a proverbial hard-on over British meat. In the culture war that is Brexit, with freedom of movement already affecting the agricultural workforce and vast EU subsidy losses to come, “support our farmers and fishermen” has become 2019’s version of “support our troops at war.” Jeremy Hunt even made it part of his ill-fated leadership bid last month, pledging £6 billion for the farming and fishing industries if he got the job.


But it’s not just Tories or even the politically engaged who are obsessed with buying British food. Over the last decade, supermarkets have relentlessly pushed the ‘best of British’ message to consumers, plastering British flags over everything made in the UK – even when, in some cases, the food is produced elsewhere. From Waitrose to Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, supermarkets across the price spectrum have profited from a simple message: British = best. Eight in ten Brits now claim to check the origin of food before buying it.

So, what drives the sudden popularity of buying British? Vhari Russell, founder of marketing agency The Food Marketing Experts, tells me that the 2013 horsemeat scandal, in which several supermarkets were caught selling ‘beef’ products that contained horsemeat, made British consumers hyper-vigilant of where their food was coming from. This pushed an already growing emphasis on buying British into overdrive.

“Consumers have become much more conscious over where their food comes from,” she explains. “There was a tide change, where retailers had to prove that they were supplying what they said they were supplying, but also consumers increasingly wanted locally sourced, fresh produce.”

Alongside origin, consumers now expect to hear the ‘brand story’ behind their food. Think about the number of TV adverts that spotlight the farmers who grow, rear and catch our food. Tesco’s insufferably smug ‘Food Love Stories’ campaign also feeds into this growing demand, though it’s by no means just supermarkets that have capitalised.


“The rise of British gin, which is now worth millions, is a prime example of how effective people sharing their story, their passion and being transparent with how they source ingredients can be,” Russell says.

The British food trend has as much to do with identity as the quality of food. Russell cites the rise of Lidl and Aldi – two European supermarkets that won over the UK market with a British product offering – as evidence of this. “They have been very smart by mimicking the packaging of leading British brands, so you subliminally don't even realise you're not picking the leading British brands,” she says. “For a while, it was like a ‘dirty secret’ among the British middle classes. I watched one lady in Cambridge do her shopping in Lidl and empty it all into Waitrose bags.”

Indeed, British people can be very particular about food. Everyone has a different way of doing Christmas dinner, or even a Sunday roast. There is fierce debate over whether the jam or cream goes on a scone first, not to mention the best sauce for chips. These traditions are deeply ingrained.

But when does tradition turn into hyperbolic protectionism? We’ve all seen the video of a Question Time audience member saying that she voted to leave the EU because they stopped bananas from being bent (a scarily effective statement that turned out to be fiction). However silly it may seem, to some Leave voters, “taking back control” clearly included food. The assumption here that British produce is inherently superior has coincided with a rise in xenophobic attitudes and racist hate crime, also linked to Brexit. British politics and some members of the press have become increasingly hostile to foreign people, foreign powers – and now, foreign produce.


Dr Stuart Cartland, of the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies, believes that the cult-like obsession with British food is linked to a crisis in modern British identity. “We’re in the middle of a huge cultural nostalgia trip, where this sense of a cosy, village-esque idea of Britishness and English community is becoming dominant,” he says. “Transporting this into food is highly political. It conjures images of ‘the good old days’ when everyone shopped at their local butcher, before any foreign intervention.”

Cartland says that this cultural nostalgia has been exploited by politicians and retailers. “It’s very much a reaction against modernity, against ideas to do multiculturalism and immigration,” he explains. “Politicians use food and drink as a tool to convey their British identity. Why does Nigel Farage always have a pint in his hand? Because that’s a ‘normal’ and very ‘British’ or ‘bloke-y’ image.” In a similar vein is Theresa May eating fish and chips by the seaside, or Ed Miliband’s disastrous run-in with a bacon sarnie.

Politicians and retailers pushing British products in this way do so despite the fact that many symbolically British foods – sandwiches included – are a result of historic movements of people. “Even something as basic as bread is a result of long-term globalisation,” says Cartland. “Almost all of our food is a product of long-term globalisation, short term globalisation, immigration and colonialism.”


Rav Bansal (far left) and 2016 cast of The Great British Bake Off. Photo via BBC.

TV chef and food writer Rav Bansal has experienced first-hand Britain’s rising intolerance towards people and foods perceived as foreign. Bansal, a British-Indian who was born and raised in Britain, was a contestant on 2016’s series of The Great British Bake Off. Throughout the competition, he tried to introduce new flavours into the bunting-clad tent, which didn’t always go down well. He tells me: “The biggest ‘troll’ moment was someone coming up to me on a train and asking, ‘Are you the p*ki from the not-so-British Bake Off?’”

To many, including Bansal, food does have an intrinsic role in the formation of a British identity. He says that he has always struggled with the two identities of “being a brown person living in the UK.” Food, however, has provided him with identity reconciliation.

“It was food that helped me navigate that,” he says. “Growing up, I used to see how popular Indian food was becoming and it was really validating.”

Of course, buying British produce doesn’t make someone xenophobic, racist or intolerant. Supporting small British businesses and our country’s farm and agriculture workers (who are often exploitatively underpaid) is a good thing. But the relentless focus on ‘best of British’ food messaging over the last decade has coincided with – and at times subliminally fed into – a rise in xenophobic attitudes. Politicians and food retailers should take responsibility for weaponising food to peddle an increasingly narrow version of ‘Britishness’ for their own gain.

People deserve to know the real stories behind their favourite British foods. Because, as Bansal tells me, the true story is one of integration.

“Britain is a melting pot. Different cultures have brought new flavours and allowed British people to have a much wider palette,” he says. “I was born in the UK and I am British, regardless of the kind of food that I make. Food doesn't make anyone less British.”