Liquid asset ... a bit of water makes a world of difference to sellers of "fresh".
Liquid asset ... a bit of water makes a world of difference to sellers of "fresh".

Jonathan Swan

In 1987, when Woolworths stocked "a couple of mouldy old apples in every counter and some lint lettuce", Greg Logan was hired as a 19-year-old copywriter to work on the very first "Fresh Food People" campaign.

"All of a sudden they were like, 'We're The Fresh Food People'; and everyone went, 'We better deliver on this,'" Mr Logan recalls.

Fresh is fresh, never frozen and thawed. Anyone who tries to undermine that image for the sake of market advantage is underselling Australian growers 

Within six months, Woolworths displayed counters of fruit and vegetables that actually looked "fresh", Mr Logan says.

It was a case of make the claim and then back it up.

After Woolworths spent millions of dollars telling Australians how fresh it was, the company began a mad scramble to freshen up, Mr Logan said.

"It was inspired," he said.

For the next 24 years, Woolworths "owned fresh", until last month when its enemy, Coles, wheeled out celebrity chef Curtis Stone, a jingle, and a new advertising line: "There's no freshness like Coles freshness".

In a 45-second television commercial, which raised a middle finger to Woolworths, Stone, chomping carrots and fondling tomatoes, declares: "We never freeze and we never thaw!"

These claims so annoyed the Victorian Farmers Federation that the group called on Coles to dump the claim, saying it was misleading.

"Fresh is fresh, never frozen and thawed," Sue Finger, president of the federation told journalists.

"Anyone who tries to undermine that image for the sake of market advantage is underselling Australian growers," she said.

And so began the fresh wars.

It wasn't enough for Coles and Woolworths to fight over price; they were now engaged in semantic warfare.

Knowing what he does about the secret lives of marketing teams, Mr Logan said Woolworths executives would have spent the past month plastering butcher's paper on boardroom walls, gaming out "how to combat Coles's attack on freshness".

Given the conjecture around the word, and its clear power as a marketing buzz-term, the Herald explored what it means to be "fresh".

"Fresh" - the definitions

Oxford English Dictionary: (of food) recently made or obtained; not tinned, frozen, or otherwise preserved: fresh fruit

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (Food descriptors guidelines 2006): "'Fresh' generally refers to food that is put on sale at the earliest possible time and close to the state it would be in at the time of 'picking', 'catching', producing etc.

"The term fresh generally implies that food has not been frozen or preserved. Some foods stay fresh longer than others and so it is not appropriate to give guidance on all foods.

"Generally consumers may understand that a 'fresh' food has not been canned, cured, dehydrated, frozen, processed or preserved."

Woolworths: (Spokesman: Benedict Brook) "Food is fresh when it has not been preserved, manufactured, frozen or smoked - in essence when it remains in its natural state. Woolworths and our suppliers do not freeze fresh fruit and vegetables. Doing so would render the produce no longer fresh."

Coles (Spokesman: Jim Cooper) "In terms of what we regard as the measure of freshness, our key benchmark is our customers' expectations. Customers use a range of criteria to assess fresh produce, among them being appearance, colour, smell, taste and texture.

"One key way to ensure fresh produce meets customer expectations is to put produce in front of customers as quickly as possible after harvest. This is particularly important for highly perishable lines such as lettuce, strawberries, grapes and berries. We are able to get these and many other lines onto our shelves within 24 hours.

"For other lines with longer ripening periods, such as bananas, avocados and kiwi fruit, the key goal is to have the product land in stores at the optimum point in their ripening process.

"In terms of when we believe fresh produce is longer deemed fresh or of acceptable quality, our fresh produce teams apply a very simple test. If they wouldn't buy it themselves, they don't offer it to our customers.”