Supermarkets: Giants who dictate diet of the nation

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The Independent Online
In the second part of our series on supermarkets, Ian Burrell examines whether the revolution in British food retailing has allowed stores to dictate the diet of the nation.

British supermarkets are, by almost common consent, the best in the world. But their reputation for quality control, good value and high food safety standards has been achieved only by a ruthless professionalism which has left other sectors of the British food industry reeling.

When Cornish farmers produced a supply of cauliflowers which tasted good but were yellow, they were told by the supermarkets to plough 100 acres of crops back into the soil.

Beef farmers have been distressed to find that while supermarkets claim to have every confidence in their product, the unlabelled meat on their shelves has often been imported from Ireland.

Fishermen in Newlyn, Cornwall, are furious that large Cornish supermarkets often ignore their fresh catches in favour of stocking seafood from Scotland and elsewhere. Elizabeth Stevenson, secretary of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, said the supermarkets preferred to deal on a national basis with the larger companies who could guarantee a regular supply.

"The supermarkets are very keen on fixed price, fixed size and fixed amount of supply. They need the continuity," she said. "I think that is sometimes to the detriment of quality. It should be easier to get fresh fish from a port five miles away than to bring it from Scotland."

As the supermarkets strive for an ever-more exotic range of choice, so British suppliers are increasingly overlooked.

The arrival of iceberg lettuces from southern Europe after 1988 has helped reduce Britain's self-sufficiency in salad products from 89 per cent to 74 per cent. Similarly, only 25 per cent of apples consumed here are British, compared with 90 per cent self-sufficiency in France.

With the food having to travel further, it is often more exposed to chemical preservatives. Research by the campaign group Friends of the Earth suggested over Christmas that 40 per cent of fresh produce sold in Britain contained residues of pesticide. "The supermarket policy is more about profit than broadening taste," FoE spokesman Adrian Bebb said.

In the course of their transformation into superstores, the grocers have subsumed other sectors of the food industry. The number of master bakers has plummeted from more than 12,000 in the Fifties to fewer than 4,000. According to Trevor Dixon, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, thousands of grocers, butchers and other traditional shops are going out of business each year.

"They just don't have the facilities to compete and there is still a tremendous haemorrhaging going on," he said. "In the neighbourhood environment the convenience store is often the only retailer left."

In 1972, 90 per cent of milk was delivered to our doors, compared with less than 37 per cent today. To the fury of environmentalists this has helped bring about the collapse of reusable glass bottle in Britain.

Concern have also been voiced about the intense marketing by supermarkets of pre-prepared meals at the expense of fresh produce. Further, supermarkets are only willing to deal with a small number of growers who are prepared to invest in new equipment for temperature control and handling their produce. Many of the remaining suppliers have gone to the wall.

Nevertheless, this philosophy has led to the raising of food standards world-wide. In Kenya, field-pickers once harvested beans in unhygienic conditions to be sent to Britain for packaging. Now, at the insistence of the supermarkets, the products are pre-priced and packaged by trained workers before being air-freighted.

According to Douglas Henderson, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, such efficiencies have allowed British supermarkets to "come out top on a world-wide basis". He said supermarkets did not dictate to shoppers but could react quickly to their tastes by using electronic check-outs. "They are becoming progressively more sensitive to demand because of the sophistication of their IT systems," he said.

While the supermarket revolution has reforged the food supply chain out of all recognition, the modern consumer is presented with an unprecedented range of more than 20,000 lines in major stores. As David Hughes, professor of agriculture at Wye College, University of London, said: "The supermarkets allow people to elect to make food choices which they feel reflect their aspirations and lifestyle."