The M&S star is 25 years old. But why has no-one considered the strangeness of a pig sweet made with real pigs?by Chris Townsend / October 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
July this year marked the 25th anniversary of Percy Pig, impossible though that might seem—for many of us, it feels as though he and his cohort are relatively recent additions to the shelves of Marks and Spencer. Percy, a squishy, vaguely fruit-flavoured sweet in the shape of a smiling anthropomorphic pig has proven himself to be doubly irresistible to the consuming public: cute in appearance; delicious in taste.
In the year that he first hit megastardom, 2008, he raked in over £10 million for M&S on his own. Since his inception, he has birthed piglets, married a lemon-flavoured pig called Penny (a confused nod to gender equality, no doubt), released “rosy noses” and “phizzy pig tails,” befriended a sheep and a cow (“Percy and Pals”), and met a tiger and a panda under his guise as a “globetrotter.” He has also, since 2011, made appearances as “Veggie Percy.”
Veggie Percy differs from ‘regular’ Percy in two key ways. First, the little pig faces now have green ears. Second, the packaging proudly indicates that the sweets are “gelatine free,” and are thus suitable for vegetarians. According to the M&S website, now “even more people can enjoy” Percy, as he no longer contains elements of a real animal.
This is, one feels, a strange move for a retailer to make—to generate noise about the implicit moral superiority of a new product, whilst knowing it will only draw attention to the more dubious qualities of the main event. Think of H&M’s current “Conscious-sustainable style” line (which can be found on their website when you choose to, quote, ‘Shop by Concept’); by creating a distinct space for ‘ethical’ clobber, they’ve rather undermined the status of the rest of the clothes they sell. And sure enough, it is the existence of the ethical Veggie Percy that draws most attention to the hidden truth of regular Percy: that he contains not just gelatine, but “Pork Gelatine.”
In Douglas Adams’s superlative The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Arthur Dent, an evacuee of the recently destroyed planet Earth, sits in a restaurant and is waited on by “a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type.” All of the dinner options that the cow rattles off are to come from its own body: it has been bred to take sycophantic pleasure in presenting itself as dinner. Arthur queasily orders the salad. This episode influenced Julian Baggini’s book of philosophical thought experiments, The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten; in the titular passage, a man named Max meets a talking pig named Priscilla, who has been genetically engineered to look forward to being killed, cooked, and consumed (“Max thought it would be disrespectful not to eat her”).
Adams’s cow also inspired a comparable joke on The Simpsons, with a waiter-pig in the Garden of Eden representing the fast-food version of Arthur’s dilemma: “Today I’m featuring mouthwatering pork ribs. Tuck in, then!” Homer, in the role of Adam, shows no qualms in biting into the pig’s side. The kind of dark humour we find in these stories stems from—and thus highlights—the fact that we are generally unwilling to equate “animal” with “animal product.” We take our children to the zoo or to the local farm to educate them about the natural world, not instruct them about the origins of brunch, and we don’t like to stray across the semantic line that separates pig from pork.
There is a kind of estrangement in play here. It is far easier for consumers to get on with the business of buying (and eating) things when they don’t have to see the industrial practices that lead to objects in the house or food on the table. We maintain a disconnect, in our minds, between the iPads we own and the facts and figures we have read about factory working conditions. This also true of the food industry; the stories in the current news cycle about food safety records on chicken products also draw unwanted attention to the unpleasant conditions of industrial farming.
Tesco’s ‘Willow Farms’ brand and others, with labels that feature tractors, weathervanes, and animals stood outdoors and on grass, are designed to reassure us that the farms in question are something other than factory floors on an industrial estate. In turn, Percy’s smiling face is a strange reminder not only that many commonly consumed products derive from animals, but that we are unusually good at putting the idea of the animal-product industries out of mind for much of the time. It is uncomfortable when we have to recognise—as in the current news cycle—that the chickens we eat might have lived miserable lives.
A pig-shaped sweet that contain pig is a bizarre form of honesty from the product designers at M&S, who could presumably have chosen any smiling, anthropomorphic animal from the farm or the forest to be represented in sugar form. Percy was born in Germany in 1992, a product of the company Katjes, a rival to Haribo (also German in origin). Katjes supplied M&S with a foamy-gummy texture for a sweet, and M&S dreamed up the character. (Had someone seen the ingredients list and subconsciously internalised the idea of a pig?)
Strangely enough, Katjes produces its own near-identical product called ‘Fred Ferkel’ (Ferkel meaning ‘piglet’). The sweets are of the same mould as Percy, but the packaging proclaims a crucial difference: Fred is ohne tierische Gelatine—“without animal gelatine.” In fact, all sweets sold under the Katjes brand are vegetarian, and most are vegan; Katjes’s self-described ‘philosophy’ is to “go veggie — be happy!” The originators of Percy Pig apparently detect no appetite amongst German consumers for real pork in their sweets; does M&S feel differently about the British public?
It’s hard to guess how much real pig there is in Percy. Pork gelatine is the fourth largest ingredient, after three kinds of sweetener (glucose syrup, sugar, glucose-fructose syrup). The fifth largest ingredient—fruit juice—makes up only 3 per cent of each smiling face. Gelatine itself gets its name from its form; the Latin gelatus means ‘frozen’, and gelatine, in its slick translucency, looks like disparate parts frozen into place. It is made of animal collagen, the structural protein synonymous with cosmetic surgery.
The collagen, in turn, is aggregated from the parts of animals that the meat industry can’t use: mainly skin, bones, and connective tissues, taken from cows, chickens, pigs, and sometimes fish. The bits are diced by machine and degreased, roasted, soaked in lime, and then finally boiled down into a homogeneous substance. Gelatine’s primary application in food is as a thickening agent, to give form and structure to comestibles—it is pretty much flavourless, a fact that seems miraculous given its constituent parts. It is this insipid largely undetectable stuff that fleshes out Percy’s cheeks, giving him his botox smile.
Gelatine’s existence in food is hardly unknown, and most of us realize it’s there—in Haribo, in jelly, in marshmallows, in Percy Pig. (Strange that it finds its way onto the table at so many childhood parties.) Globally, over 412,000 tonnes of gelatine is produced every year, and the gelatine business is expected to be valued at $2.75 billion by the end of next year.
This makes it all the more surprising that Percy cartoonishly resembles what he once was. Imagine the furore if M&S had given Percy Pig an equine friend in ‘Percy and Pals’ made out of horse gelatine (it’s a lot more common to feed horses gelatine—for healthy hooves—than it is to extract the stuff from them). We do not hide horse meat behind labels like ‘beef’ or ‘pork’: horse is horse, just like Brexit is Brexit. And the Europe-wide horse meat scandal last year was as much about British identity as it was about animal ethics. Horse might be good enough for European mainlanders, but it would never do to eat a horse here.
We’d be wrong to conclude that this means that we, at some unspecified level of our conscious or unconscious minds, hate pigs—I doubt if anyone really enjoys Percy Pigs because they derive a kind of schadenfreude out of the suffering of a particular animal. But Percy does a good job of capturing our ambivalence towards many domestic animals. We derive pleasure from the mere existence of animals, and some of the earliest words we teach our children are the names of farmyard creatures (and think of Peppa Pig, who can boast 2.5 million subscribers to her Youtube channel). But we also learn early on to enjoy the taste of meat, and we guiltlessly go about consuming the same animals we bring to life in children’s fiction. To go about the business of guiltlessly consuming, it’s necessary to hold separate the ideas of ‘meat’ and ‘animal’—hence the cognitive dissonance of Percy Pig.
It is a difficult and confusing thing trying to balance ethical responsibility with the overwhelming urge to buy things, and the marketing departments want us to prioritize pleasure above our pesky moral compasses. M&S print in their sandwich boxes “Eat Delicious Everyday,” which is at once an astonishing imperative and a baffling abuse of adjectives. And it might be too much to demand logical consistency of anyone’s dietary choices. There is currently much debate online as to whether it’s reasonable for vegans to enjoy Ben & Jerry’s new dairy-free ice cream—the company is owned by Unilever, and its main business is producing some 250,000 pints of dairy ice cream per day. The M&S response to the question “is it right to eat pigs that are shaped like smiling pig-faces?” is to hand you a bag of Veggie Percy and to point you towards the checkout, but those same ‘veggie-friendly’ sweets silently highlight everything that is wrong with regular Percy.
What the smiling face of Percy Pig reveals is precisely the displeasure we take in looking beyond the face of things, and beyond the superficial grinning inanity of the marketing departments. It is the smile of a brand-owned animal that wants to cleanse you of any guilt you might feel about eating its kind; the gelatine that wants to be eaten.