Friday, May 29, 2009

Choices, choices

When we were in the UK we went to one of those big Tesco Superstores. As usual I wanted to stock up on various things you can’t get in Albania &this was the local supermarket for my In-Laws. The children wanted to look at toys, any excuse to go somewhere that sells toys, particularly ones that don’t fall apart in the car on the way home from a pocket money spree.

Every time we come back to the UK more is available & supermarkets are even bigger. This time it was bike stuff, camping equipment, even horse riding kit. In the supermarket…

This Tesco was not so much a Tesco Metro as a Tesco Metropolis. A whole city sprawl of retail under one roof, piled high, sold cheap.

We encountered the now familiar sensation of ‘choice anxiety’ How to choose between so many brands of one thing.

I also discovered a whole world of new products I didn’t know existed. I went to look for porridge oats and found oat with spelt, oats with rye, oats with millet. What about oats with...just oats?
Onto the peanut butter, here I discovered I could buy Pistachio nut butter, Brazil nut butter, Almond nut butter. Peanut butter is obviously ‘so last year’
Feeling a tad overwhelmed I sought solace in cooking ingredients and discovered agave syrup, & wild myrtle leaves in the herbs & spices (no idea what I might use those for).

Part of me loves the wealth of ingredients because I love to cook and try new recipes; part of me is overwhelmed & rendered incapable of making any decisions.

Mostly I am just flabbergasted that so much of ANYTHING is available.

I must admit we go a bit shopping mad when we come back to the UK. We don’t go near a shop in Albania, except to buy food. So there is a.) the novelty factor & b.) the child let loose in a sweet shop factor. There are always things that need replacing too, we get through electrical goods rapidly, because of the power surges & ‘dirty electricity’, our ‘furnished’ flat doesn’t include things like bedside lights, shelves etc, we have no English language library, we buy Christmas & birthday presents at home, next year’s shoes, next size up clothes etc.

I asked an Albanian friend of mine (who’s been sponsored by the Albanian President to do a Phd at Oxford) where to shop for X, Y or Z. She said ‘in England’. She buys everything there. So much so that there’s not much incentive for her to finish her Phd (& so her global shopping) on time….

In Albania, everything is cheap Chinese imported tat and lasts 2 minutes, or is imported from Europe or America & is hideously expensive. My husband took his office’s broken Krups coffee machine to repairers who said it wasn’t a real Krups, it was a copy, & wouldn’t touch it. And it had been bought from the main electrical chain in Albania.

So I have this strange love–hate relationship with supermarkets back in England, & certainly an element of hypocrisy too. Actually I prefer Waitrose, having done some research on this (NOT 1 of the big FOUR) They offer better deals to farmers, have better relationships with suppliers & are much less ruthless in their approach.

Tescos controls a third of the entire UK grocery market (1 in every £7 spent in all British shops is spent in Tescos), that can’t be good. It’s a dominance that increasingly diminishes our choice of where to shop. BUT I have to admit, I do appreciate the fact that I can get so much under one roof. I spend an awful lot of time scouring Tirana for things not only because shops run out & supplies are inconsistent, but because the fruit, veg, meat & fish is much better quality than in the supermarkets. Actually I prefer supermarkets for all the non-food stuff they produce.

Food in the UK it seems, is seen as a cheap, disposable commodity, but it is not cheap. It takes time, effort, skill & expense to produce quality food. Unless all we want is mass-produced, low quality food (like battery hens) Food now makes up a far smaller percentage of household expenditure than ever before even though financially & materially, as Britons we are fair better off than at any other time in our history.

When it comes to clothes, if a shop sells a pair of jeans for only £3, as Tescos once famously did, then surely any intelligent person would reason that either they are doing so at a loss as a one-off to lure in customers, or a garment manufacturer somewhere is being paid far too little.

The same is true of our food, & should be taken seriously, more so as this affects our health, Britain’s rural infrastructure & our natural environment.

Our farmers are skilled people, who can produce fantastic quality British food. As the recession deepens, & how we do business & generate wealth is reviewed, how we feed ourselves in an uncertain future, with access to certain resource becoming scarcer, is a question, which needs addressing. Just one example, 65% of apples (the same 3 or 4 varieties) are imported. Why, when we grow fantastic, and a huge variety of, apples of our own?

I think there needs to be a far stronger regulatory approach to bring the power of supermarkets under control, & to get a fair deal for farmers for their produce & to stop unfair trading practices.

Tescos (but also Sainsburys, Morrisons & Asda- the big 4) has been found to use aggressive tactics, warning suppliers to reduce their prices to them, or face being axed. Whenever supermarkets get involved in price wars, the supplier, the weakest link in the chain, always pays. Farmers are making huge losses.

Particularly in the current economic climate supermarkets are ditching their focus on food quality & green issues & competing in price wars in order to prevent customers moving to lower price supermarkets. But rather than sacrifice their own profit margins, they demand ever lower prices from the suppliers, the farmers. If it carries on, you wonder if they will have any British supply chain left.

The other visit we paid, after our trip to Tescos, was to visit the dairy farm of friends of my In-Laws. They have been farming all their lives, & are incredibly hard working, what you would call ‘salt of the earth’ people. Intelligent, articulate & very involved in the life of their community. They were delighted to show our children round their farm, including the milking shed, at milking time.

The dairy farmer told me that he felt dairy farming was in a worse state now than it has been since the 1930s when the milk marketing board was introduced to help the British dairy industry.

They have, through necessity, been diversifying. He now has a farm shop, a children’s activity barn & a café, which opened that day. He says there is lots of money sloshing around for environmental projects& for diversifying, which is not bad in itself, but no money for farming itself, or any attempt, for example to ensure the Supermarket Code of Practice is being adhered to.
He said,

“I just want to farm my land”

Before correcting himself sardonically “Sorry, the bank’s land.”

When we move back to the UK one day, I’m going to try & shop locally, support independent retailers & farmers’ markets. Get a veg box etc. I’ll probably shop in Waitrose as well, (hope I can afford it) but I think I’m going to boycott Tescos who seem to be the worst of the bunch. I’m in training here now, shopping in a less convenient, more time consuming way, but at least I can still choose to go to a little greengrocer’s. Here in Tirana, people perhaps with small holdings, have a little shop which is their livelihood, I’d far rather support them. And I can see, as more & more supermarkets chains move in, they will lose their livelihoods. I guess it’s my Britishness rising to the fore again, wanting to support the under dog.

Meanwhile I’ll just have to quell my urge to try wild myrtle leaves & agave syrup & hope I can live without them…


Parisgirl said...

I agree totally. I am always astonished by the range of goods in British supermarkets and how cheap everything is, but I do worry seriously about the quality of the food in the UK. Unfortunately just like the iniquities of NHS and private health care, there are those who can afford to buy organic at Waitrose and those who can't and are stuck with lower quality food. You are right, farmers should be paid and encouraged to produce better food, but I fear people on low incomes will still choose inferior mass produced imports if they are cheaper.

Potty Mummy said...

Paradise, great post, spot on. Of course I'm lucky; price is not the only consideration for me - although it is more important now than it has been for a long time - I can afford to think twice about the battery hen and imported beef. But shopping locally and effectively can be done - it just takes a little more organisation. The only problem for me is that farmers have yet to work out how to grow cocoa in the UK...

Iota said...

The big supermarkets are far too powerful. They dictate to the farmers which packaging suppliers they have to use, which transport companies they have to use, etc, and if the farmer says no, they just take their business elsewhere. Why should the farmer have to pay the company that the supermarket chooses, to package the produce?

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

In Bosnia noone really buys fruit and veg from a supermarket as the little stores are so much better - fresher, local etc. It took a while to get over buying food that didn't look 'perfect' - I hadn't realised how ingrained it was to buy veg that looks like a childs toy.

I've found that our food shopping habits have really changed - little and often to buy what we need from the store 100 yards away, backed up with the occasional big shop from the supermarket.

Great post - it is good to make us think about the way in which we shop and how that contributes to the state of farming.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

an award for you over at mine. x

Wife in Hong Kong said...

The choice always overwhelms me when I'm back in the UK. It was the same when we lived in Germany where food retailing is far less sophisticated than in Britain. Housewives there still go to the baker for bread, the butcher for meat etc every two days or so. Food is fresher as a result and shoppers more discerning. However, it does take time and the assumption is that Mutter is at home to shop and cook and bring up the children. I find I don't miss going to the supermarket but I do miss the online delivery service which means I can order what we need without actually having to do battle with a supermarket trolley.

scaryazeri said...

My husband tells me off for browsing the supermarket aisles for hours, chosing something as simple as toilet paper. But there are so many types! One is too thick, anotyher one is too patterned, some are just too is important to chose something like that correctly!!!
I am glad I discovered your blog.


Anonymous said...