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Wednesday 15 January 2003

A heavy price to pay for gobbling up cheap food

Magnus Linklater

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 Sainsbury’s 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 yesterday’s kumquats, sweet potato and oven-ready chicken korma, in come vine tomatoes, Mexican persimmon, and three kinds of salsa verde.

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 day’s supplies can be estimated down to the nearest gram.

Tesco’s 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 superstore expansion.

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.