The big supermarkets are here to stay, and they are very convenient. I remember trying to buy fresh veg on a Sunday – you just couldn’t in the early 80s, so I’m glad those days are over. But supermarkets have led to the loss of many independent shops and killed off variety in the high street. Have we lost the balance?
Did you know that 85% of the money we spend on food is spent in supermarkets? This gives them a huge power over us happy shoppers, as well as suppliers and governments. We think supermarkets give us loads of choice – but are we really the ones in control?
I went to a very interesting debate about supermarkets on Thursday, hosted by The Guild of Food Writers. Alex Renton, Tim Hayward and Zoe Williams put forward their strong views, refereed by Sheila Dillon from Radio 4’s The Food Programme. The setting of Portcullis House gave it some gravitas, as portraits of past and present PMs lined the coridoors. Andrew Opie, from the British Retail Consortium and Sophie Bambridge from Barfoots, a large vegetable supplier explained some of the reasons why supermarkets operate in the way they do.
TOO BIG FOR OUR GOOD
Alex Renton argued that farmers are forced to pay the cost of the supermarkets’ price war. When customers demand cheaper food, the costs are paid elsewhere. Small scale farming is dying out, animal welfare gets worse, and we eat more processed food which creates strain on the NHS. He argued that European co-operatives are the answer, giving more power back to the producers.
Alex also pointed out that the supermarkets aren’t always cheaper – they just say they are! Often local shops offering local produce are much cheaper. Don’t believe everything they tell you!
WE GET WHAT WE DESERVE
Andrew Opie said supermarkets simply give customers what they want. If we shop according to price, we get cheap food. When we ask for free-range, we get that.
READY MADE PANCAKES ANYONE?
Tim Hayward, a former ad man and now journalist said advertising has a massive impact and every article that tells us “we are too busy to cook” does us a disservice by making cooking seem like a chore. Wet then pay a premium for ready meals and processed food. Apparently the average Brit adult watches 30 hours of TV a week, so how can they justify that they are too busy to shop around and cook fresh food? He argued that feminism is to blame: if cooking is seen as domestic drudgery, the answer was found in processed convenience food. Generations have not learnt to cook.
Zoe Williams responded by saying that women are too busy to cook, working as well as still doing most of the household chores. Many men claim they cannot cook, and those that do only have time to cook chef-style on the weekend, leaving family cooking and shopping to the women. It created a debate: I think this could be a generation and regional thing.
SUPERMARKETS ARE IN CHARGE
Sophie Bambridge explained the supply chain and how tough each supermarket negotiate on price, with Tesco being the most bullish. The story of asparagus being flown in this year made the newspapers; she explained that the UK asparagus was late but the slot was allocated in each supermarket, so they had to fly in asparagus to fill the shelves. The sheer scale of supermarkets means they cannot respond to seasonal variations.
WHAT DO I THINK?
I find most supermarkets gloomy, cluttered places and I try to avoid them. The worst are the ones with entrances lined with cheap muffins, made with trans-fats, as the fake bakery smell pumps over you. Rows of processed ready meals and cereals are depressing too. Bread that has been ‘baked in store’ but uses cheap ingredients, fat and stabilisers. Co-op and Watirose tend to be better – more focus on fresh ingredients, and less on processed foods. There are plenty of healthy products to find in any supermarket: free-range eggs, organic milk, British fruit and vegetables, but you have to be tough to ignore the junk. The alternatives are markets, delivery schemes and shopping local. The French manage it; we have just got in to some very strange habits.