This news item was first published 20 January 2017. Click here for all updates on this case since 20 December 2016
Despite Pret a Manger claiming to “shun obscure chemicals”, the Real Bread Campaign has discovered that this “natural” sandwich chain is serving its unsuspecting customers a cocktail of artificial additives including diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono-and diglycerides (E472e) and l-cysteine hydrochloride (E920).
After nearly a year and a half of correspondence with Pret’s CEO Clive Schlee, the Campaign believes that the company has no intention of resolving this apparent discrepancy by either removing all artificial additives from its products, or by declaring them on product/shelf labelling and removing the natural and anti-additive claims from its marketing.
From social media to etched wooden boards in store, through sandwich cartons to napkins and window displays, Pret repeatedly makes claims such as “we shun the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food.”1 Elsewhere, Pret appears to imply that the absence of ingredient labelling is because its own sandwiches are additive-free, saying that “factory produced long-life sandwiches are plastered with labels containing lots of boring numbers, names, dates and symbols. No label is good. Pret sandwiches etc are fresh. They have no labels.”2 The company even goes as far as to state “Now you know how to spot the difference.”
Even though the company insists that “avoiding preservatives and obscure chemicals is sacred to Pret,”3 the reality is that it does use them. In May 2015, an email from the company’s customer services department responding to a query from the Campaign revealed that the ‘malted wholemeal’ loaf it uses has 15 listed ingredients and unnecessary additives.4 Across Pret’s range, the artificial additives used in baked products include: E920 (l-cysteine hydrochloride) E472e (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides), E471 (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), E422 (glycerol), E330 (citric acid) and E300 (ascorbic acid).5 None of these appears on product packaging, labels or point of sale signs. The Campaign then began corresponding with Schlee, encouraging the company to become a Real Bread leader by going additive-free in line with its claimed ethos.
The Food Standards Agency criteria for the use of the word notes that “Natural means essentially that the product is comprised of natural ingredients, e.g. ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man. It is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings that are the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.”6 As Pret acknowledges: “nowadays scientists make mass-produced food last longer, look nicer and have improved “mouth-feel”. This alchemy often appears on packaging as E numbers and long unpronounceable chemical names. Basically, it helps make money along the way. The damage these additives do to our bodies is the source of tremendous debate and research.”7
In the May 2015 email, Pret admitted that “the number of included ingredients is so large, that to provide comprehensive ingredient advice in this way would be impossible.” Even assuming that this, and the protest that “we don't label our sandwiches due to the volumes we make,” is true, clearly there is plenty of space available at point of sale, but they choose instead to display “labels that describe the flavours in each sandwich.”
Another pillar of Pret’s marketing is ‘freshness’. This includes highlighting that some of their “shops have a wonderful baker’s oven (indeed, some have two). We bake our baguettes throughout the day, the fresher the better.”8 However, not one of the company’s outlets uses its “big, fancy baker’s oven”9 to make “baguettes, pastries, croissants and savouries in house every day” from scratch. While insisting that “‘we don’t sell ‘factory’ stuff,”10 Pret in fact use its ovens merely as what the Campaign calls ‘loaf tanning salons’ to bake off mass-produced items pre-made elsewhere at some point in the past.11
In October 2016, Schlee wrote that the company had declined to switch to using a Real Bread bakery as “their prices were two to three times our current price and moving would cost Pret several million pounds”. He claimed that they were “making progress in moving to cleaner bread” but it was not clear whether additives would be removed, or replaced by so-called ‘clean label’ (i.e. undeclared) processing aids.12 As at December 2016, Pret’s ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ marketing messages were still in use.
Real Bread Campaign coordinator Chris Young said: “We urge Pret a Manger to come clean, first by displaying lists of all ingredients, including additives, on packaging or at point of sale and bringing its marketing messages in line with its practices. No artificial additive is necessary to make bread and ultimately we would like to see Pret, and all other sandwich sellers, removing all artificial additives.”
Since its launch in November 2008, a key element of the Real Bread Campaign’s mission has been to bring about change that gives more people the chance to choose additive-free loaves. A mainstay of this is calling for changes in governmental policy (an ‘Honest Crust Act’) and commercial practice, which will result in more honest and transparent labelling and marketing to help people to make better-informed loaf and sandwich buying choices.
Find details of how to:
10 September 2018: Asked Westminster for a revised ETA on the information they promised we would receive by 6 September.
6 September 2018: As 20 working days had passed since we submitted the FOI request to Westminster on 7 August, we asked when we could expect the information. We also asked for answers to the two, simple questions we have asked repeatedly since 26 April, most recently in a revised form on 22 August. "There was a fair amount to look through and establish what we could or couldn’t disclose. The advice we have given Pret was based on a timeline of implementation which I believe will form part of the response you get to your request. I will chase the officers involved today to progress this with the minimum of further delay."
As 20 working days had also passed since we escalated our complaint about Westminster's handling of the case, we called Local Government Ombudsman for an update only to be advised the case hadn’t even been allocated yet.
22 August 2018: Westminster - "I was hoping though that you have noticed that many of the stores are now using new wording on their product labelling, cups, napkins and signage generally? We would welcome your thoughts on this and hope it helps demonstrate the progress that is taking place." We replied that we had not and asked: "Do you mean that Westminster has advised/instructed Pret to stop using the word natural in its marketing and if so, what form has this guidance/instruction taken and until what date have you given the company to comply?"
21 August 2018: Despite everything outlined below, the Chief Executive of Westminster City Council rejected our complaint about the delay in resolving our as-yet unresolved complaint of 20 December 2016 about Pret, or the lack of transparency while the case is ongoing.
7 August 2018: Having still not received a response to the Stage 2 complaint we submitted on 1 May 2018, we escalated the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman - auto response promised a response within 20 working days. With Westminster also continuing to refuse to answer our questions, we also submitted a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to Westminster for the following related to the issues raised by Real Bread Campaign’s complaint of December 2016:
31 July 2018: For the ninth time in three months, we chased Westminster for answers to the two questions we sent on 26 April. Westminster yet again avoided answering, instead responding: "I can only repeat what I have already said - that we are continuing to speak to Pret in our Primary Authority capacity about their wording and monitoring their progress."
26 July 2018: Westminster: "This is to let you know that the Stage 2 complaint is still under investigation. I am liaising with the service and will be preparing a draft response for clearance. A response will be sent to you by Monday 6th August 2018."
24 July 2018: Two weeks after the person handling the Stage 2 complaint advised that he aimed to respond "by early next week", and over a month since he first promised it "within 10 working days" we chased him for a resolution. We also chased answers to our questions of 26 April.
12 July 2018: Westminster: "I am liaising with Trading Standards colleagues as part of the Stage 2 investigation, and aim to respond to you by early next week." We chased answers to our questions of 26 April.
10 July 2018: Fourteen working days since Westminter promised a response to Stage 2 Chief Executive review request within 10 working days, we have yet to receive the also-promised acknowledgment, let alone a full reply. We chased this and answers to our questions of 26 April.
20 June 2018: We chased Westminster for replies to our questions of 26 April and response to our Stage 2 complaint of their handling of the case. We received a reply that they had not processed our Stage 2 complaint of 1 May as, at that point, they had no record of a Stage 1 complaint and that they had not received our emails of 21 May and 5 June. "You will receive a formal acknowledgement, and a response will be sent to you within 10 working days from today." Still no reply to our questions of 26 April.
6 June 2018: We rephrased our questions to Westminster of 26 April as: "What is causing further delay in you fulfilling your duty to protect consumers in Westminster from Pret’s misleading marketing messages in its branding and in its stores? What deadline have you given to Pret to remove these misleading messages?"
5 June 2018: Westminster: "We are continuing to work with Pret in terms of their branding. As I’ve said this is being done through advice via our PA partnership with the company. We are happy with their proposals to date, and the discussions continue."
5 June 2018: We chased Westminster for answers to the questions in our email of 26 April and a timescale for their Stage 2 response.
22 May 2018: Westminster sent a copy of their Stage 1 response, without advising the timescale to the Stage 2 response.
21 May 2018: We asked Westminster for confirmation of receipt of our Stage 2 Chief Executive review request and a timescale for a response.
3 May 2018: Westminster sent their response to a Stage 1 complaint that we had not formally submitted.
1 May 2018: With no reply from Westminster to our email of 26 April, we followed the escalation procedure they had advised by requesting a Stage 2 Chief Executive review of the handling of the case.
26 April 2018: We replied to Westminster, asking: "What is causing further delay in you concluding your investigation, and taking action? When can we (and the residents of and shoppers in Westminster and beyond who continue to be at risk of being misled by Pret’s claims) expect a conclusion?"
25 April 2018: It is a week since the ASA ruled that Pret’s ‘natural food’ claim is misleading and banned the company from making this claim, the ‘thorough decision’ upon which Westminster advised its own position would rely. Westminster were in fact prepared for this almost two months ago by the draft ruling they received on 28 February, and quite possibly before by communications between the ASA and the department. Despite this, Westminster still has not reached its own conclusion to the 16 month-long case, let alone taken action to protect the residents of, and shoppers in, Westminster from Pret's 'misleading' claims. “I realise that this process is taking time; the ASA ruling took some time and our ongoing discussions with Pret are also progressing to our satisfaction.” At the fourth time of asking, Westminster send details of the procedure for escalating a complaint about the department’s handling of the case, which they call a Stage 2 Chief Executive review.
19 April 2018: We asked Westminster the direct question: “Does your department investigate complaints about potentially misleading in-store marketing messages by traders operating in your borough and, where appropriate, issue guidance to the trader, followed by enforcement action if necessary? If yes, please reply to our previous questions. If no, please redirect us to the appropriate authority for such a complaint and advise why nobody from your department gave this advice over a year ago.”
18 April 2018: Westminster “our role in Westminster is as Primary Authority for Pret a Manger. As previously set out, this role is a partnership aimed at ensuring a business is able to receive advice and guidance from a single point of contact. This role is not one of taking enforcement action across the whole of the company’s outlets. Where an individual local enforcement authority, or certain other regulators wish to take action, they do so but ensure that we as their PA are aware. Your original complaint was, correctly, to your own local authority Hackney Trading Standards - who chose not to take enforcement action, but to refer it to us (the Environmental Health Food Team in fact) as PA in order for us to advise them. This is what we are continuing to do and as you rightly say all parties now have the final, published ASA ruling to assist us in that. There are, as you know, pieces of legislation and other guidance available to inform the advice we give the company, and which may or may not create criminal offences. We have been cognisant of these in our discussions to date, and will continue to be so. [...] we are very clear about our role and are fulfilling it appropriately.”
18 April 2018: ASA bans Pret's 'misleading' natural food ads. The Campaign yet again chased Westminster for answers.
5 April 2018: Chased Westminster for a response to the questions in our email of 21 March.
4 April 2018: ASA sent their council's ruling on the complaint to us, Pret and Westminster. This will be published on 18 April 2018 and the details are under embargo until then.
3 April 2018: Asked ASA for an update.
29 March 2018: Chased Westminster for a response to the questions in our email of 21 March.
23 March 2018: Westminster appeared to be deferring to the ASA, responding that “The ASA have ultimate authority to decide how Pret’s advertising media should change going forward if it is required to.” We again pointed out that the parallel complaint we sent to TS was about claims that fall outside the ASA’s remit, eg on napkins, shop wall and window signs and posters, product packaging etc.
21 March 2018: We replied to Westminster saying that, more than a year since we submitted our complaint, we don’t need a meeting, we need final answers. We listed specific questions that summarised our complaint, plus what actions they would take in light of their findings, asking they give us full replies by the end of the week. To give us a full picture of why this case has taken the department fifteen months already, we also requested details of all actions, meetings, conversations and copies of all correspondence related to investigating our complaint.
19 March 2018: Chased Westminster again for an update. They replied that “the most appropriate course of action is to await the decision by the independent regulators of advertising across all media (ASA).” We replied pointing out that the ASA only covers advertising, which is why we submitted a related but separate complaint regarding marketing claims made by Pret in other media (point of sale material, napkins, posters, signs, labels, packaging etc.) outside the ASA’s remit. They replied inviting us for a meeting, we responded that they simply reply by email as it would be quicker for both parties. They responded that 'We feel that there is an issue here that cannot be addressed by email. The questions you have raised are very pointed and to answer them alone would not explain the entirety of this situation.”
13 March 2018: Chased Westminster again for an update.
8 March 2018: Chased Westminster again for an update.
1 March 2018: Following up on the conversation with Westminster on 18 January, when the guidance was that the investigation would reach a conclusion in ‘weeks, rather than months,’ the Campaign emailed yet again to ask for an ETA on publication of a decision.
28 February 2018: The Campaign received the ASA's updated draft resolution, which - unless challenged again by Pret - will go to the ASA council for its ruling. The ASA also advised that, more than a year after receiving the complaint, it had at last sought advice on the case from the Food Standards and Labelling Focus Group, a working group with members from the Trading Standards Association, the Food Standards Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health.
9 February 2018: ASA “This case is one of our longest running ongoing investigations and, as with the small number of other cases that run on far longer than average, this is primarily down to the complexity of the issues raised. That has required us latterly to seek views from outside the ASA [...] I think we should be able to get the updated draft recommendation to you within the next two weeks. Once we have done that we envisage reaching an outcome not long after. This is always dependent on the responses we receive to the recommendation, but we would hope that to be by mid or late March.”
6 February 2018: The operations manager of the ASA investigations team advised that the officer investigating the complaint is on sick leave. “I am trying to create enough space in my own calendar to review the file in the hope that I am able to issue the draft recommendation in [her] absence. Either [she] or I will be back in touch with you next week to provide an update on when we expect to be able to get the draft recommendation to you.” The Campaign replied asking for details of why this case is taking so long.
1 February 2018: As the ASA had estimated it would conclude its investigation by the end of January, the Campaign emailed ASA asking for an ETA on its new Draft Recommendation to the ASA Council.
18 January 2018: An officer from Westminster called the Real Bread Campaign, advising that the investigation was ongoing and they were unable to give any details “until it is out in the public domain.” Asked why it has taken more than a year so far, and what the process was, they replied that “the big wheel is turning and until it has, the little wheels can't turn.” They would not explain what this meant but that things “would all become clear when it is out in the public domain.” They also advised that, as a Primary Authority, their main role is to work with and advise a company. When challenged on this with the understanding that their main role is to protect consumers, they repeated their previous assertion. They indicated that the case might reach a conclusion in “weeks, rather than months.”
15 January 2018: Chased Westminster for a reply to the email of 10 November
4 January 2018: Chased Westminster for a reply to the email of 10 November
20 December 2017: A year to the day since making its original complaints, the Real Bread Campaign chased Westminster for a reply to the email of 10 November and asked again when a decision could be expected.
28 November 2017: ASA “We have received a lengthy response from Pret to the Draft Recommendation and there is also the issue you have raised regarding the FSA Guidance in relation to issue 1, so there are still outstanding points that we need to deal with. I would hope that we can conclude the investigation by the end of January, but that is just an estimate.”
27 November 2017: The Campaign emailed ASA asking for an ETA on a new Draft Recommendation to the ASA Council, following the extended 10 November comment deadline it set.
20 November 2017: Eleven months since ASA and Westminster began investigating Pret's advertising and other marketing claims.
10 November 2017: The Campaign replied to Westminster, asking for their assurance that they are also:
a) Working on all of the concerns we outlined in our complaint, not just with regard to Pret’s mission statement.
b) mindful not only of the economic impact on the business under investigation, but also of the economic impact on small, independent businesses in the sector – and impact upon shoppers, who we believe are being misled.
9 November 2017: The key points of a 255 word email from Westminster: “…unfortunately we are still not able to provide you with a final outcome regards your concerns about the Pret A Manger’s “mission statement.” Pret has been told that we do not fully endorse the mission statement […] as a regulator, we have to be mindful of the economic impact that our advice or enforcement action has and that the improvements in compliance are fair and proportionate. Please be advised that due to the complex issues involved, it will take time to reach a final position and further time for the company to implement change; if so required […] We shall continue to work in partnership with Pret A Manger to achieve the above aims and compliance to all legal requirements. Once this process has reached a conclusion, we shall be in a position to provide you with an update.”
7 November 2017: The Campaign emailed Westminster again asking for a response to the email of 23 October. Westminster replied: “I apologise for the delay with our response to your email. We aim to respond to your enquiry tomorrow.”
31 October 2017: The Campaign emailed Westminster asking for a response to the email of 23 October.
31 October 2017: ASA “We have allowed Pret to have an extension until 10 November for commenting on the Draft Recommendation.”
23 October 2017: After a tenth month of waiting, the Campaign emailed Westminster requesting an update.
20 October 2017: Ten months after receiving the complaint, the ASA sent a copy of its investigation team's draft recommendation for the ASA Council. The Campaign replied with comments on the draft ruling.
28 September 2017: Westminster: “We appreciate it has been 9 months but this is still something that is live and we are continuing to work with Pret on this in order to resolve. We recognise that there are potential issues associated with [Pret's] mission statement so please rest assured that we are following this up and dealing with your concerns. We have meetings arranged with Pret on these issues and we are hoping to get this resolved as soon as we can.”
26 September 2017: ASA: “We have been liaising with Trading Standards. Now we are at the stage where we can draft a recommendation and I am going to do this over the next couple of weeks. I will send this out to you and the advertisers as soon as I can.”
25 September 2017: The Campaign followed up the queries sent on the 20th.
20 September 2017: Nine months after it submitted the complaints, the Campaign asked ASA and Westminster for progress reports on their investigations and ETA for completion/decisions.
8 August 2017: Westminster: “We are continuing to work with Pret on this and are currently finalising a list of ingredients. The next stage is to get expert advice on this so we are in consultation with the Public Analysis now.”
19 July 2017: ASA: “I have been liaising with my colleague who is expert in food issues. We have decided to re-word issue 2 in response the comments set out in your email of 5 June. We now have a better understanding of your complaint and think that the wording below adequately expresses that. In terms of timing, we intend to contact Trading Standards as they gave advice to Pret in relation to the claims in 2011. I am waiting for Pret to provide the appropriate contact information.”
12 July 2017: ASA: “I am meeting with my food specialist colleague on Friday to discuss Pret’s latest response. I cannot be more specific than that about timing at this stage.”
11 July 2017: ASA: “As you know, this is a complex case and we have been liaising extensively with Pret. I have also been liaising with colleagues in the department who are expert in the food rules. The latest is that I contacted Pret with outstanding queries and they have responded today. I will need to discuss their response with colleagues before I can prepare a draft recommendation.”
4 July 2017: ASA: “I have arranged a meeting for next Friday with Pret to see what the current situation is and to see what our next steps will be.”
16 June 2017: Westminster: “I sincerely apologise that you have not received response to your concerns in relation to claims made by Pret. This is exceptional situation which occurred because the officers who were dealing with your request unfortunately left the council. I would like to reassure you that they raised your concerns with Pret and this will be followed up by the new officers who are copied into this email. We will review your complaint and ensure that it is fully investigated.”
16 May 2017: ASA: “I have been out of the office for several weeks on extended sick leave and it is my first day back in the office today. I understand that a colleague has been liaising with Pret in relation to the complaint and that we should be in a position to update you again within three weeks, if not before.”
2 May 2017: The Campaign requested an update on progress from ASA and Westminster. The Campaign received an automatic response from Westminster that the main person dealing with the case no longer worked there. We redirected our message and was asked for a case reference. We replied that we had not been given a reference for the case but pointed out the other officer working on the case should have the details. The reply was that she was on maternity leave.
23 March 2017: ASA advised that the case was under investigation.
8 March 2017: Westminster advised that the case is still under investigation and that they will be meeting Pret again in April.
15 February 2017: Westminster: “I have a meeting with Pret a Manger this coming Monday regarding your complaint. I will update you after the meeting.”
31 January 2017: Westminster advised it is investigating the complaint.
27 January 2017: Hackney TS advised that it had passed the complaint on to Westminster City Council, Pret a Manger's Primary Authority.
23 January 2017: ASA advised it is investigating the complaint.
12 January 2017: Real Bread Campaign followed up the complaints.
20 December 2016: The Real Bread Campaign submitted complaints to both the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Hackney Trading Standards (TS) department.
Real Bread Campaign
Real Bread Campaign: The Real Bread Campaign finds and shares ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet. Whether your interest is local food, community-focussed small enterprises, honest labelling, therapeutic baking, or simply tasty toast, everyone is invited to become a Campaign supporter.
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