Sunday, November 19, 2023


The story of the Co-Op grocery chain’s “ambient sausage roll” has lived at the back of my head for at least a decade, as a go-to example of a non-sequitur: “ambient” is an odd description for a foodstuff, even if the context is explained. All I know of the story is that sausage rolls were sold with this label, and later withdrawn as someone admitted the word was used without confirming its meaning first.

Coming from the land of bubble and squeak1, Stargazy Pie2 and the Bedfordshire Clanger3, “ambient” is hardly a strange enough word to cause offence, but in January 2010, it apparently did. Using the few news articles I found of it online from the following month, I put together the following statement that was issued by something named the Plain English Campaign: “We’ve had quite a few people call to say they’ve seen these ‘ambient sausage rolls’ on sale at the Co-op. It’s caused much amusement. I know it’s supposed to be ‘all at the Co-op’ but what on earth is an ambient sausage roll’?”

This was followed up by a spokesman from the Co-Op: “The use of the word 'ambient' on the label of this product was an administrative error - labels for in-store bakery items are printed in store and the word 'ambient' was incorrectly printed on the label. This is now being rectified but thank you for drawing this to our attention and apologies for any confusion this may have caused.”

“The Daily Telegraph” apparently had an editorial comment at the time calling it a “small victory for plain English”, but I am not willing to pay to read what more they said on the matter. I would still like to think of it as a mistake that can be interpreted as a bit of fun.

The Plain English Campaign is a group focussed on eradicating legal and medical jargon, gobbledygook and clichés, so naming food doesn’t appear to fall under their purview - their website makes no mention of their earlier comment. Interestingly, the incident exposed a different use of the word “ambient” by the food industry to mean “displaying at room temperature”, suitable for the surroundings, instead of evoking the creation of a relaxing atmosphere – a 2017 article in “The Grocer” magazine was headed “Country Choice launches 12-hour ambient life sausage roll”.

If this mistake had taken place in 2023, I am pretty sure the Co-Op’s social media accounts would have made hay while the sun shined, with a range of “ambient” products remaining on sale far longer. I just prefer it when having fun with language isn’t discouraged.

1 A fried dish of mixed cabbage and cooked potato.

2 Pilchard, egg and potato tie, served with a pastry crust that has the pilchard heads sticking out, preferably upwards. 

3 A pastry tube, not unlike a sausage roll, filled with meat, potato and onions, not unlike a pasty.


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