Foodie news items

November 4, 2007 at 8:24 pm Leave a comment

There’ve been a couple of things in the news recently that I really should comment on, but have been dashing around like a mad thing lately, and tending to spend my evenings talking to my bf or making Christmas cake.

Firstly, the Soil Association were considering imposing much stricter standards on imported organic food. Now, my first reaction to this was that organic is just a label that tells me how something is grown* and that as an intelligent consumer I am perfectly capable, thank you very much, of looking at the label to find out whether something has been grown organically in Israel or grown organically down the road from me. I broadly agree that growing cash crops for export is never going to lift third world countries out of poverty, and that importing lots of food is a Bad Thing. I just didn’t really think it was within the Soil Association’s remit.

Then, I thought about it a bit more, and realised that the aim of the organic movement and the Soil Association is to promote sustainability, and that, really, air-freighted food and large-scale importing of food** isn’t, really, sustainable.

I still don’t know if I want every ethical food choice I make to be dictated by the SA, but I’m beginning to see the connection between the two issues. Oh, it’s all so hideously complicated.

The second thing is the Competition Commission’s report on supermarkets***, which I won’t go on about at length in case I start spitting blood again. The Today programme irresponsibly broadcast it before I’d had my second cup of tea, and my colleagues had to suffer the consequences all morning. (Poor buggers.)

Anyway, I understand that it was largely a result of the Asda/Tesco milk-price-fixing scandal that came to light over the summer (Really? Supermarkets don’t pay milk producers enough? The food industry is stacked against the little guy? Quick! Commission a report!) and that it was therefore supposed to report on supermarkets’ competing against each other, not against other retailers, cos, y’know, that’s not really competition so much as….

Okay, okay, blood duly spat, sorry.

So, yes, the recommendation that supermarkets should stop hoarding land and not building it to discourage other supermarkets opening is a good one from a certain, limited, point of view.

And, yes, there are no systemic problems with the supply chain. Waitrose, while not perfect, still manages to pay suppliers a fair price, while maintaining a large-scale distribution network. So it’s not because of the way Tesco sources its products that farmers get pissed off and go bankrupt, it’s cos of the way they treat the farmers.

The thing that annoyed me was that it neatly sidestepped the big problems with supermarkets. They are all capable of competing with each other, and we don’t need to make that easier, as off the back of that recommendation there could be more and more and more supermarkets opening up everywhere in the name of ‘competition’. Which might help them fight each other, but will just squeeze out small local retailers even more.

And also, the immense amount of pressure the supermarkets exert over their suppliers was largely overlooked, which ignores the glaringly obvious problem that the reason none of their suppliers will speak out against the supermarkets is not because they are happy with being treated like like they are, but because they are scared. Scared to speak out in case they lose the paltry income they get from their monocrop of cauliflowers. It’s not a Catch-22**** situation, but it’s a very unfortunate one, and it needs lots of people to start caring and provide a demand for alternative outlets and to campaign on behalf of this.

The bf and I went to stay at his mum’s this weekend. There’s a little Tesco just opened in the village a few months ago. That shop was a mini supermarket before, and the village managed to support (and still boasts) two butchers shops (one of which is new!), a fishmongers, two greengrocers and two bakeries. One butcher, greengrocer and baker and in the same stretch of shops as the Tesco, while the others and the fishmonger are further away. It’ll be really interesting to see what closes, and where, if anything.

In the interest of being positive about this issue, may I first praise the new butcher in the village for the excellent service we received yesterday. We turned up as they were clearly closing, and he went into the back, found us a roasting joint, brought the scales out, even though they’d been cleaned, so he could weigh it and price it for us, and was very smiley and helpful, even though we’d probably annoyed him by turning up when he wanted to go home. (I know we did, I used to work in a shop. Every day punctually at 5 to 5, a bevy of people used to appear in the car park, walk towards us very slowly, proceed to wander around the shop and ask questions about where the meat and cakes came from and stuff. Insensitive so-and-sos.)

We also got our veg box on Friday, and haven’t got to play with it yet, but it looks very exciting. Some of it comes from near Reading, some from Thame and the fruit from Gloucestershire, which is about as local as you can hope for when the farm shop has closed for the winter and everywhere around you is covered in new-build houses and motorways. All organic, though that was a secondary consideration. Also got some meat at the farmers’ market on Thursday, including a mallard which I have to learn how to joint, and some pork – if it’s good we’ll get half a pig from the same people. Very helpful he was too, the farmer.

Now, what can I do with Swiss Chard?…….

What is Swiss Chard????

* And don’t get me started on the Soil Association’s monopoly on organic labelling, and how it discriminates against small producers who can’t spend ££££ on certification.
* Is it just me that thinks that while eating strawberries in January is Just Plain Wrong, we can excuse ourselves the odd banana and cup of coffee? I am a little hypocrite sometimes.
*** “Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?” my boyfriend asked the other day. Why indeed. Must be why they renamed it. Could stand the paradox.
**** Really, it’s not. I read the book. It’s a whole lot more complicated than just ‘a difficult situation’.


Entry filed under: food, organic, supermarkets, veg box.

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November 2007
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