Helen Martin: Supermarkets hold all the aces

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NO official, politician or chef has yet had the temerity to come right out and say we got what we deserved when it came to horsemeat, but it’s come close a couple of times.

Bubbling under the surface is the notion that if we expect cheap and plentiful food, we must also expect a few corners to be cut and, let’s say, a variation in standards. That might even hold some water if it really was the case that food was cheap.

But the facts tell a different story. “Cheap” and “expensive” are relative terms depending on how much the average punter is likely to have in their pocket. In the last 12 months, wages in the private sector have risen by only 1.4 per cent. Food prices rose 4.5 per cent. So not “cheap” then.

Then there is the complexity of food shopping and supply nowadays. It was simple to monitor in the days of local grocers and before supermarkets (yes, there really WAS life before supermarkets).

Folk didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford, and shops wouldn’t stock what their customers wouldn’t pay for. It was supply meeting the demand and price points of local shoppers. One shop for the poor, another for the rich, and it was all very transparent, if not a model of social equality.

Now we enter one vast emporium where everyone’s needs are met. Budget, own brand, horse burgers to the left, rib-eye beef steak to the right. Cheap, chemical margarine on that shelf, finest Normandy hand-churned butter on the other. Cotton wool plastic bread in the aisle, artisan sourdough sprinkled with fancy seeds on the wooden bakery stand.

The processed, dubious, splodgy microwave meals are there in one chiller, with the luxury dine-in “pre-prepared, oven ready” gourmet selection in another. To which of these food prices do the annual rises refer?

No wonder prices are going up with our supermarket style shopping. There aren’t one or two types of cooking oil, mayonnaise, toilet rolls or floor cleaner . . . there are dozens of each, not to mention about six different egg producers and scores of tea bag options. The same goes for every product in the store – a world of choice which is not only unnecessary, but more expensive to offer.

And good for the supermarket which can charge top whack for top-quality produce to those financially advantaged customers for whom the recession is still a distant rumour, while also grabbing its share of the budget-bound market, the poor souls who daren’t give themselves the luxury of wondering what’s in the own-brand lasagne because at least it’s in their price range.

There may be seven million in fuel poverty, but unless you’re on a pre-payment meter you can turn on the leccy and worry about paying for it later. Food has to be paid for up front.

The myth that decent, welfare-
certified, good quality, unadulterated, free from chemicals, what-it-says-on-the-label food is “cheap” is adding 
insult to poverty.

Milk is cheap because supermarkets are commercially “mugging” dairy farmers and bull calves are killed at birth. Lots of food is cheap because, comparatively speaking, it is rubbish.

But we have lost customer power. Demand, or lack of it, doesn’t affect supply any more because if we can’t afford an item, someone else who shops there can. If we want only the best, others can only afford the worst. The 
supermarkets are in complete control.

They, of course, will say they cater for all. But there’s a big difference between them delivering what we want, and selling us what we can afford.

Stalled plans

ON the same theme, Morningside seems like an excellent place for a farmers’ market. Like Stockbridge – which already has a successful market – there are local traders who, though protesting now at plans to hold one monthly in the car park behind the Merlin bar and restaurant, would benefit from the extra footfall, and there are customers with a taste for good food and the money to buy it. But 
customers won’t just come on foot from the local area.

And unfortunately, there is a complete lack of capacity for parking. Saturday mornings in Morningside make Trafalgar Square look positively rural. The council has narrowed the road, creating even more congested queues of traffic and widened pavements – except at the Merlin where it’s one-way single file only.

Residents already find they dare not set off in their car because they won’t get back in their street till 
sundown.

The compromise, as happened in Stockbridge, might be to hold the market on Sundays?