Step forward Drew Smith, former editor of the Good Food Guide and television presenter (he launched Food File), who sets out for the first time to report on their performances.
This week we summarise his findings in exclusive extracts from his new book, Drew Smith's Good Food (Harper Collins pounds 12.99), an encyclopaedic digest of the best to be found on the supermarket shelves.
Drew Smith has tackled a vast project. The major supermarkets stock upwards of 7,000 food items each. It is certainly a timely study, for how many are in a position to make across-the-board comparisons? (Living in certain areas, there may be little choice anyway).
We can't buy our way through 50,000 items, seeking the best. But we have our preconceptions; random media test panels suggest that the higher-priced M&S and Waitrose will come out on top. But we are cheered when the lower- priced Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway upset them, and startled if Asda, Somerfield or the Co-op seize the initiative. Are these preconceptions justified? Drew Smith's investigations offer some surprising conclusions.
Here we publish his league table of supermarkets, which is based on performance last year, starting with the "Big Five", and summarise his end of term reports.
Smallest and most-quality conscious of the Big Five. There is a cohesive philosophy that is welcomingly reassuring. Branded goods are chosen with discernment. It is an orderly garden rather than the jumble of downmarket, pile-it-high shops. Even the recipe leaflets are elegant.
Strong points: Fish, probably the best chain. Best bakery too (though some M&S stores equal it). Also best for exotic fruit - all fruit and veg are high quality. Good cheeses.
Innovations: Salad bars; flower delivery service.
Prices: Reputation for being expensive, but 150 basic lines as cheap as anywhere else. Pricing policy bizarre and unnerving. Valencia oranges sold at three prices the same day. Bacon prices seem arbitrary and illogical, not to mention potatoes and herbs, so your bill can be a surprise.
Ready meals: Innovative. The most sensitive to trends and fashions, first to sell Thai green chicken curry, coconut rice, beef rendang with rice, Japanese teriyaki, Singapore noodles. Diet-conscious too; for example, McVitie's Low Fat Double Chocolate Gateau is 95 per cent fat-free. Boasts the wackiest assortment of luxury dips, all-singing pack of mango and lime, Caribbean pineapple and coconut, smoked salmon and dill and sun- dried tomatoes.
Celebrity link-up: Top chef Raymond Blanc suggests recipes based on foods in store.
2. MARKS & SPENCER
They don't qualify, in a sense, to be listed alongside other supermarkets because of the smaller range. It's one-day shopping rather than stock- up shopping, unless you are very extravagant and have a large freezer.
It is the only supermarket which seems to have completely thought through what its customers really want. The energy behind the company is invigorating. Everything they sell is own-label, cutting out the problem in other stores of choosing between myriad foods which are often the same in different guises.
Convenience: Their motto. Vegetables are sold in various states of convenience, trimmed; or combined in pairs, say baby sweetcorn and asparagus, or baby cauliflowers and baby broccoli; or shredded in a bag ready to go straight into a microwave. Many innovations concentrate on using the microwave to good effect.
Meat: Superb presentation in stores which have butchery sections; both English and French style.
Fruit: First-class condition, always labelled by variety.
Bread: Very good in the bigger stores. Sandwiches are starting to look more pedestrian since the brilliant Pret-a-Manger chain appeared on the scene. Still solid, though. They are diversifying into flavoured breads such as tomato and stuffed pittas.
Ready-meals: Easily the leader. Energised by new concepts rolling on within existing ranges. Wide range of Chinese, Indian and now Lite. A preponderance of chicken and potato dishes must be balanced against some brilliant innovations like parsnip and Gruyere bake, or aubergine and tomato filo parcels. Less exciting are its fish products, which do not show the same vision. They usually come breaded with ready-cut and blanched chips. Party snacks are a strength - cheese and garlic bites, mini-quiches, mini-pizzas, mini salmon-en-croute, mini Indian bites.
Desserts: Another area of excellence from white chocolate torte and egg custard tarts to American fudge cake and spectacular tarte au citron.
Standards: These fluctuate between stores, especially in range of choice. The showpiece Marble Arch store in London must be as good as any food store in Britain. Other branches lack the same dedication.
Tesco currently seems the most dynamic supermarket chain. It offers more genuine choice than any other store. Around half the lines are own-label, with the price benefits that brings.
Tesco seems more thorough than some of its competitors. Its ethical stances on healthy eating are a positive approach to the environment, and are not without some commitment. Improvements are introduced across the board and not just lobbed in as extra-premium earners.
The new generation Metro stores, mostly in London and big regional cities, look like the first real competition M&S have had. Choice is scaled down, but the effect is a "greatest hits" repertoire culled from the bigger stores.
Out-of-town stores go down the convenience road, like M&S, with offerings such as carrots, whole, shredded, in batons, in microwaveable packets combined with swede, or courgettes with garlic butter.
Cheeses include some which are rare and exceptional, such as Quicke's Cheddar or Manchego.
The bakery has got out of a rut, offering wide range of classic breads (not to mention introducing square crumpets). Its bread flours have enough protein in them to bake a sound loaf. Own-label Italian pastas are notably good.
A new initiative last year has improved quality of pork, beef and lamb. Fish is sensible and mainline, if smaller range than Waitrose. Fruit and veg are good quality, if enthusiasm for exotics has waned.
Ready meals: Followed Covent Garden Soup Company into fresh soups. Thai and Indian lines appearing but main themes are English (Teviot Pie, Spotted Dick). Tesco has an obsession for pizza, which reappears in various different parts of the store, reincarnated as thin and crispy, deep and crispy, Chicago Town, GoodFellas, Pizza Feast.
Sainsbury's seems to specialise in selling one example of the very good and one example of the very gunky in the same range. Why it stocks some foods and not others implies lack of discernment or philosophy.
Most of Sainsbury's virtues are in the first aisle, with an extensive range of fruit and vegetables, rice, pasta and, in some stores, fish. Beyond this, the aisles are filled with endless variations of seemingly identical foods with different packages and prices. Enthusiastic support for own label, even with many variations within one product range.
Showpiece stores have good fish counters though others are content with frozen. Extra-matured meat tends to be worth the extra money.
Bread has been reorganised, using new plant at Milton Keynes, a success with varieties such as scofa and chollah, and the honest triumph of a brown loaf made with 60 per cent wholemeal flour.
The deli counter is a poor mish-mash. And the apparent bulk of choice is an illusion - for example, there may be more than 20 cheddars, more than 50 variations of low fat yogurt, and yards of bacon where price bears little relation to quality. Commitments to dry cure and free-range appear to be rather tentative.
In contrast are the Special Selections, now in 200 stores, shops within a shop, a bijou collection of designer foods, hand-made chcolates by Melchior, AA grade Kenya coffee, Gunpowder Green Tea, estate-bottled olive oils, flavoured vinegars. Special Selection is astounding but untypical of what Sainsbury's really stands for. This should be the future, but there is a nagging feeling that it will ultimately be dismissed as a minor event. The jury is out.
Ready meals: Despite John Cleese's superb advertisements for Sainsbury's convenience foods, the ready-made section lags some way behind the other supermarkets. The choice is uninventive and clearly aimed at the comfort sector. Some are unbelievably inept, like corned beef hash. The exception is the Indian range. Meat pies and pasties convey a pervading sense of old-fashionedness.
Desserts: Positively flaunt the idea of Olde England - crumbles, jam roly-poly, deep filled apple pie, jam sponge pudding.
Of all the big supermarkets Safeway appears to have lost its way. The original American company was the first to bring purpose-built supermarkets to Britain in 1963. After promising much it now appears badly in need of some radical rethinking. Newer stores are a mish-mash of ideas. Much of the innovation is superficial.
Fruit and veg: Consistently of good quality, the emphasis towards variety, though the zeal of a few years ago appears to have disappeared.
Breads: Good Italian from La Fornaia, but the thrust of the bakery section appears to be towards pappy rolls, rolls, and more rolls of questionable value or items like cream buns, choux buns and so on.
Deli counter: Impressively large, ranging from fresh roast chicken to Chinese and Indian takeaways, party services, but commitment to any notion of quality is absent and there is little discernment.
Biscuits: Safeway is big on these, introducing innovations via their manufacturers such as McVitie's Mini Cheddars with Marmite, Jacob's Ritz Hitz, Crawfords Allstars New York Hot-dog Flavour, and TUC's Barbecue Flavour.
Ready meals: Seem to be stuck in a time-warp. Safeway has pizza mania, with a pizza of the month and DIY pizzas. Quiches and pies old-fashioned and dull.
This is is the new look for what used to be the Gateway chain. The move across is fundamental, not cosmetic. Somerfield has improved the fresh foods, brought in some suprisingly good own label, kept up much of the value and has been a breath of fresh air for many small towns.
It is hard to argue with clementines being sold for 10p per pound the week after Christmas. Special offers of two for the price of one have brought back some fun to shopping.
The meat buying is often shrewd. Although few of the ranges could claim to be market-leaders they are usually good value, middle-of-the-road. Their range of branded dry goods is on a par with ASDA. The only mystery is why they want to sell yards of brown sauce.
Stores tend to be smaller than those of rivals, but are usually in town centres rather than out-of-town-sites. Many of them have taken on the character of the old Safeways, and indeed Safeway could learn a few lessons from Somerfield today.
Ready meals: Limited space for chill sections, which are small.
Walking into a large Asda is like going back in time. Asda excels at stocking the kind of brand names that dominated the Fifties and Sixties - Vesta, Tyne, Fray Bentos, HP - a sort of graveyard for empire foods. The thinking behind what is stocked is old-fashioned; 38 yards of shelving devoted to breakfast cereals, compared with two yards for flour; 10 yards of shelving for margarine spreads against two yards for butter.
Fresh meat is sold with all the finesse of Desperate Dan. Fruit and vegetables are mediocre in both choice and quality. Cheese is disappointing, ranging from the sad Five Counties Slice to Pineapple Gateau (this is also a cheese). Exceptions are own label farmhouse Cheshire, Lancashire, cheddar, Leicester and Shropshire Blue.
Freezers are well stocked with the big name brands (but no room for small producers without significant marketing budgets.)
Wines: Very good. Well-chosen wines, selected with discrimination not evident in the food buying.
Ready meals: A flash of modern thinking within an otherwise old-fashioned hangar philosophy. Varied and innovative. From enchilada to Yorkshire pudding with chilli con carne, good Indian meals, including Balti, rogan josh, chicken variations with Quorn.
Desserts: Fashionably old-school varieties such as upside-down pudding, marbled chocolate sponge, raspberry jam sponge and custard.
The fate of the Co-op is depressing. It is the country's fifth largest retailer with over 1,000 stores, with separate managements and policies, in each region. The Co-op takes up strong ethical positions, endorsing the customer's right to know - for example, it insists intensively-farmed eggs are clearly labelled.
The big stores are passable imitations of other big supermarkets, but the smaller branches are in disarray. The Co-op was founded in 1844 by 24 disaffected workers in Rochdale in protest againent adulterated food, their mission to search out nutritious whole foods at reasonable prices. How is this vision of a better world reflected in these new lines, recently unveiled: Co-op Prawn Cocktail, Co-op Mini Waffles, Co-op Fishburgers, Co-op Chocolate Meringue Gateau?
However, the Co-op still has an important place in our lives. They have the country's largest milk round, delivering to one-third of all homes. And as the largest undertaker, they bury a quarter of the population. !Reuse content