Tesco executives have agreed to meet members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to discuss labelling on produce from West Bank settlements, despite insisting that there will be no change in their policy.
The long-challenged voluntary labelling guidelines, whereby supermarkets are encouraged by the government to state explicitly on packaging whether the produce comes from Jewish settlements or not, may be in place by the end of the month.
The initiative to impose the new guidelines has been spearheaded by the Foreign Office. Foreign Secretary David Miliband was due to meet two West Bank Palestinian farmers this month and it is believed by pro-Palestinian campaigners that Mr Miliband wanted the guidelines in place before his meeting on May 22.
However, the meeting has now been postponed; it is understood this is because the farmers have not been able to obtain visas.
Although Israeli officials have protested about the guidelines, one source close to the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was much more sanguine this week. He said: “I understand David Miliband wants to be leader of Labour and so has to say some things to curry favour in his party. What he has said to us is much less worrying, and I am very optimistic.”
But Sue Phasey of the University of Essex said: “Supermarkets would not now be agreeing to meet with campaigners were it not for government pressure to look more closely at the legality of trading with settlements. Importers of settlement produce have been made aware of the threat of legal action.
Tesco, criticised last month for setting up a boycott helpline during the Gaza conflict, had been approached by pro-Palestinian campaigners who wanted chief executive Sir Terry Leahy to meet the farmers.
In reply, Ruth Girardet, Tesco”s corporate responsibility director, turned down the offer of a meeting with the farmers but confirmed that a meeting is due to take place with the PSC, adding: “Tesco are in discussions with a Palestinian exporter about the potential supply of products to our stores. I am hopeful they will be successful and will contribute to the increased commercial opportunity for Palestinian exporters to reach customers overseas.”
A spokesman for Tesco said: “The PSC has asked to meet us in order to understand our labelling policy, but a date has yet to be fixed. There is no change in policy relating to imports from this region or our labelling of such products which continues to be influenced by government and EU guidelines.”
In January, the Co-op became the first supermarket to stop sourcing settlement produce for ethical reasons. Len Wardle, Co-operative Group chair, said: “It has proven to be all but impossible to ensure that supplies derived from the region are not perpetuating injustice and unfair terms of trade. We will no longer source dates, grapes and a number of herbs from the illegal West Bank settlements and will be phasing out the use of similar items from our own-brand products.” Marks & Spencer has adopted a similar policy.
Tesco has sourced herbs, dates and avocados from settlements for 15 years and sells them under the Tesco brand. A spokesperson said: “It”s about choice, and customers can make that choice. The farms are mainly on the West Bank, with a couple in the Golan Heights. In terms of nationality, they have a mix of land ownership and labour.”
Waitrose sources mint and basil from farms in Mehola, an Israeli settlement established in the Jordan Valley in 1967.
A spokesman said the Palestinian and Israeli workforce on the farms had worked together successfully for years. “Palestinian workers rely heavily on the income from exports. Therefore we”re aware of the impact that withdrawing trade would have on the community.”