Burying uncomfortable news can be common practice in politics. Announce those things that perhaps might not receive such a favorable reception during a busy news period in the hope they will be overlooked, and feed out the good news when things are quiet, ensuring exposure.

The practice doesn’t always work, however. For example, some years back, a UK government press advisor was let go after allegations of planning to release unfavorable statistics on the same day as a royal funeral. The chickens certainly came home to roost in this case!

It has been a busy time for news in the UK, including food news. April 8 saw the death of Lady Thatcher, April 10 saw the Dutch announce more horsemeat findings and a recall, while the UK Food Standards Agency announced horsemeat findings of its own. 

And on April 11, supermarket chain Tesco issued an “Update on poultry feed,” revealing that it had removed its genetically modified-free guarantee for poultry and eggs.

"We are not the first UK supermarket to reach the conclusion that a non-genetically modified policy on poultry feed is unsustainable, and we won’t be the last," the update said.

Leaving the timing to one side, this is an interesting way to present a change in policy. If others are doing it, it must be OK! There’s nothing like safety in numbers, I suppose, but if the people around me start jumping off bridges, I am not sure that that I would feel compelled to do the same or approve of their behavior, but no doubt the supermarket knows what it is doing.

Tesco goes on to say that, over recent weeks, UK poultry and egg suppliers have been telling retailers that it is increasingly difficult for them to guarantee that the feed they use is entirely genetically modified-free. The supermarket then goes on to say that it could not continue with a promise that it could not be sure of keeping, and that it wanted to be “upfront” about the changes.

Somehow this reminds me of the beef/horsemeat contamination. Or perhaps it doesn’t. When beef hit the headlines, during the post-Christmas lull, additional testing was introduced to ensure that there was no horse DNA in beef products and guarantees offered up to reassure consumers, along with big announcements in the press. 

Nothing illegal

Of course, let’s be clear: Tesco is doing nothing illegal and my view is that genetically modified feed will be increasingly used as consumers come to terms with it. In some parts of the world, it is already widely accepted, and the fuss that surrounds it in other quarters is viewed with bemusement.

Nonprofit group GeneWatch UK has condemned the supermarket for abandoning its requirement for genetically modified-free feed. It notes that chicken and eggs sold by the chain will not be labeled as genetically modified fed, although GeneWatch should remember that there is no legal requirement to do so.

It does, however, make a good point in noting that, according to the Food Standards Agency, two-thirds of UK consumers want labeling of animal products if genetically modified feed has been used in their production.

Some might say that this consumer resistance might have been well considered and have influenced the timing of the announcement, while others would argue that major corporations update their customers as quickly as possible, and that what else is going on the world is irrelevant. Who knows for sure? 

Don’t forget that, in Europe, the feelings about genetically modified run very high, with protestors destroying crops and attacking research facilities. Given the interest of the European consumer in genetically modified, it is interesting to think about how this change would have been handled during a quiet news period.