Focusing on the concept of ‘commodity chains’ within the food industry, this paper analyses the term's widespread and variable usage in both academic and policy-orientated work. Despite recent criticisms, the concept has retained its popular appeal alongside competing metaphors such as networks, circuits and assemblages. Examining the concept in more detail demonstrates a range of diverse and inconsistent definitions such that ‘commodity chains’ are in danger of becoming, in Andrew Sayer's terminology, a chaotic conception. The paper pursues Sayer's suggestion of making such conceptions the object of academic study where the proliferation of diverse uses may throw light on the political interests of those who mobilise the term in different ways. The argument is illustrated with case studies from the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Countryside Agency (a statutory body) and Sustain (a campaigning group). The analysis draws on secondary sources and on interviews with representatives of these agencies. The paper concludes that the different mobilisations of the concept by these agencies provide valuable insights into the politics of food and farming in contemporary Britain. Specifically, we argue that the concept objectifies social relations, fore-grounding certain (technical and economic) features and back-grounding other (social and environmental) issues.