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Wednesday 15 January 2003
A heavy price to pay for gobbling up cheap food
The Times, 15/01/03
Who cares who buys Safeway; the supermarket
system is deeply flawed
Death to the superstore. Death to its Disney-style
architecture, its endless corridors, its cavernous trolleys, its
rock-bottom prices, its choice, convenience, and soulless car parks.
Above all, death to its sheer, unstoppable success. I do not care
whether Morrison, Wal-Mart or Sainsburys wins the battle for
the Safeway chain, because all of them share one aim, the need to
grow bigger and faster and persuade us all to eat more, in order
to survive. Instead, all we do is get fatter and sicker. The time
has come to curb our appetite for cheap food, not to encourage it.
Consider this: the big supermarket chains offer
us on any one day an average of 30,000 different lines
to choose from, 30,000 items with which to load our boots and sustain
the rapidly expanding girths of our families. Each year, to tempt
us to further excess, they have to find some 16,000 new lines, replacing
and discarding the old, packaging and presenting the new. Out go
yesterdays kumquats, sweet potato and oven-ready chicken korma,
in come vine tomatoes, Mexican persimmon, and three kinds of salsa
The growth has been phenomenal. Back in the Seventies,
when we still shopped at places quaintly known as high street groceries,
we chose from a range of some 5,000 items. We bought fruit in season,
and went without it for the rest of the year. We had meat produced
by local farmers, and we paid more when it was scarce. If it was
not there at all, we went without.
Today we demand perpetual availability and the
lowest prices, and by golly we get it. The cut-throat competitiveness
of the big food chains means that although we spend less of our
income on food than we ever did, we eat far more of it. Fifty years
ago one third of disposable household income went on food. Today,
despite those groaning trolleys, the figure is less than 10 per
cent. The gap between rich and poor has grown alarmingly: among
the poorest 20 per cent, the one-third figure remains the same as
it was in the 1950s; higher earners, on the other hand, now spend
less than 5 per cent of their income on food, and that includes
the salsa and the kumquats.
On the back of this relentless expansion, the
retail giants have engulfed the market. Just four of them now account
for 80 per cent of food sales in Britain. In America, Wal-Mart has
moved to the top of the Fortune 500 list of rich companies, and
is now the largest corporation on the globe, surpassing Exxon Mobil
in overall sales. Its $218 billion sales last year equalled the
combined revenues of IBM, AT&T, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft
and Gillette. By far is biggest recent growth has been in food.
Its purchase of the Asda chain in Europe, and
its impending bid for Safeways, will ensure that this level of growth
is maintained for now at any rate. There has, however, been
a cost, and the cost is borne by our society. Governments have shrunk
from measuring it, but we see it in the growth of obesity and the
resulting drain on our National Health Service, in the traffic jams
that clog our streets and pollute our environment as we travel to
out-of-town stores, in the clogging of our roads as the supermarket
giants truck their supplies from centralised distributors, and in
the damage that has been caused to local employment and local producers.
It is here that the sheer craziness of the superstore
oligarchy affects our lives. For years, successive governments have
been urging consumers to eat more locally produced food, and telling
farmers that they must diversify. The agricultural industry has
been advised to create new markets rather than rely on state subsidies.
Superstores, on the other hand, do everything
they can to circumvent these aims. In order to guarantee cheap food,
of uniform quality, eternally fresh and instantly available, they
have streamlined production lines to the point where few local sources
can gain entry. Each line is controlled by a system
known as category management whereby a single producer
guarantees the entire supply of a particular food which is then
trucked in overnight from a central depot.
Bar-code technology is so sophisticated that next
days supplies can be estimated down to the nearest gram.
Tescos computer system, for instance, will
order a precisely calculated number of lettuces at 10pm one evening,
and they will be there at 6am the next day, sourced by a single
company from Spain or Kenya or wherever the season dictates, then
brought to the store by giant lorries. The days when local farmers
delivered produce to the back door are long gone. Efficient consumer
response, as Jennifer Francis, a senior research assistant with
the Institute of Manufacturing, points out, has been the key to
No local producer or retailer can possibly match
the cheapness or quality of these monopolies, hence the despair
of farmers who are prisoners of a system over which they have no
control. Even their niche products a new farmhouse
pâté, perhaps, or a locally produced gourmet cheese,
will be copied and then produced more cheaply elsewhere. And anyone
who protests is ruthlessly squeezed out.
This is the antithesis of a free market, yet governments
are seemingly incapable of interfering. As Tim Lang, Professor of
Food Policy at City University, and author of the 1995 IPPR report
Off Our Trolleys, points out, the time has come for the rules to
be revised. The Competition Commission needs to be given social
criteria, not just narrowly defined economic criteria by which to
judge the public interest, he says. We need to reintroduce
more local criteria for defining a market, and we have to decide
what sort of market economy this Government wants.
It is high time consumers asked themselves whether
the superstores have passed their sell-by dates.