Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1922

The great Supermarket Rip Off

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Joanna Blythman is Britain’s leading investigative food journalist. Her work has won her three Glenfiddich Awards, the top accolade in food writing. She spoke to Jimmy Ross about her new book Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets<
Issue 1922

What’s wrong with our food in Britain today?

Our diet increasingly consists of over-processed, nutritionally debased industrial food. It is high in fat, sugar, salt and chemicals. We are eating less fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, and more packaged ready meals, snacks and fizzy drinks.

We pay a high price for this—literally £7,000 per minute on ready meals—but, more importantly, in health ruined.

We have an obesity epidemic, particularly in our children and young people. This is inevitably leading to long term illnesses like diabetes, heart problems and premature death.

Why is food so bad in this country?

There are historical reasons, like Britain’s early industrial revolution forcing the population of the countryside into the towns, separating them from the land and the food producing processes. But that is now true of most countries in the developed world.

What is different in Britain is that over the last three decades supermarkets have taken control of about 80 percent of the food we eat. No other country in Europe is so reliant on supermarkets for its food shopping.

Supermarkets present themselves as a progressive solution to Britain’s food difficulties, when in fact their enormous power to determine what ends up on our plates is a major part of the problem of our food culture.

In 1977 there were 62,000 independent grocers in the UK. By 2001 that had fallen to 23,960. Independent butchers in the same period declined from 25,300 to 8,344. It’s the same with fresh fish shops and all other food shops.

So it’s no coincidence that the country most dominated by supermarkets has the worst eating habits in Europe, because we have effectively surrendered control over what we eat to a few powerful chains.

Supermarkets argue that they are providing “food democracy—access to an unprecedented range of safe food”.

Is it also just coincidence that the UK’s vegetable consumption has declined by almost a third since the 1960s just as supermarkets’ dominance has grown?

Supermarkets tell us it’s nothing to do with them. They are doing their bit to improve the nation’s diet, they claim. They tell us they are filling their shelves with healthy eating options.

But, for example, even after boasting about reducing salt levels in its own label food products Asda Good For You Lasagne still had 60 percent of the recommended daily salt intake for an adult.

These levels are not unusual, with even children’s meals having nearly 50 percent of recommended salt intake.

Tesco, Somerfield and Sainsbury’s have all spurned the government’s five a day logo for fruit and vegetables.

Sainsbury’s have said the logo is “too restrictive, because it can only be applied to fresh fruit and vegetable products that have no added salt, fat or sugar”.

Explain why you argue that supermarkets are not only bad for our health but also bad for our environment too.

Supermarkets have vastly increased our dependence on imported food. Obviously some foods need to be imported—like oranges, lemons and bananas.

But when it comes to a situation where we are importing carrots from Holland, think of all the fossil fuel that this uses. If you buy organic meat in a British supermarket then most often it’s from Argentina or Australia.

You have to say we are eating oil. We now have bags of baby spinach airlifted from California or parsnips from Australia in May—this is the classic supermarket thing.

This is regarded as extending consumer choice. Supermarkets are creating what I call in my book Permanent Global Summer Time.

This also means destroying the pleasure in the uniqueness of things, the pleasure of eating foods in their season when they taste good and are not bland, insipid, air freighted contributions to global warming.

Big supermarkets can also destroy our city and town environments, turning them into clone towns. Small shops give a life and vitality to our streets.

A town that has a good greengrocer and fishmonger is more likely to have a decent post office. If the local butcher’s shop closes it makes it harder for the newsagent down the road to survive.

Then before you know it you have a dead street full of charity shops and video rental stores—non-shops. That creates environments where people feel quite unsafe.

Old people feel vulnerable because there are fewer people around in the street. People travel in cars to supermarkets, leaving the high streets as eerie, empty places with traffic passing through.

We also now have the situation where certain countries are just producing one particular thing—most bananas now come from Ecuador. This pushes out the smaller Caribbean countries.

This suits supermarkets who like to deal with one big supplier—the bigger the better.

English apple growers are now giving up and ploughing up their orchards because they can’t compete with the big growers in the southern hemisphere.

Then the supermarkets start playing off these countries against each other, and eventually you’re left with one country per food. Suppliers are left in a very precarious position with the buyers.

This also leaves the populations of these countries dependent on imported food. Countries like Kenya are supplying British supermarkets with little dinner party items like baby sweetcorns, mini-fennels, and hand-trimmed this and that.

That’s a very dodgy business to be in, because any day one of those supermarkets is quite likely to turn round and say, “We can find someone who can do it in Zambia cheaper.”

So, for countries all over the world, the key thing has got to be to try to build food security. So I believe agriculture has to be broken down into smaller scale, sustainable units—both for the people who work in agriculture and for the animals involved.

But don’t we need a certain level of industrialisation in farming to feed the world?

No, because we know that industrialisation of farming does the opposite. It doesn’t feed the world. It feeds profits of the big corporations.

The so called green revolution, when pharmaceutical companies were going to use pesticides to liberate farmers from plague and pests, just didn’t work. It’s the same with GM crops.

These are apparently going to liberate us from pesticides. But they don’t come up with the goods. They replace one problem with another.

What about fair trade products? Supermarkets now stock a lot of these lines. Are they not better for the environment and us?

There’s no doubt that good fair trade schemes that are properly audited do deliver tangible benefits for the people involved in them. They can take people off the bottom of the heap and give them slight improvements—a shorter working day, less use of pesticides.

In principle I think they are a good thing, but there is no doubt that supermarkets have taken advantage of fair trade to create a sort of aura around their whole business which suggest they do business ethically.

Really you should go into a supermarket and see a sign saying “Fair Trade Products”, and the others should all be labelled “Unfair Trade Products”, because that’s the truth of it.

For a long time supermarkets resisted saying anything was good about organic food because it implied there was something wrong with conventionally farmed food.

It’s been the same with fair trade, but they’ve decided they can get PR benefits, polishing their corporate social responsibility halos so they are getting in on the act.

The key thing is it’s a drop in the ocean. It’s no good having a few jewels of fair trade products where 99.9 percent of your trade is extremely unfair and unethical.

Fair trade is not just about people in other countries. Food producers here are being shafted by the supermarkets, and it’s creating a race to the bottom.

If a lettuce grower in Lincolnshire is being screwed down in price the main thing he will do to respond is cut wages or use people with no work permits on slave labour wages.

So I’m cynical about fair trade not because of the fair trade movement, but because of what the supermarkets have done with it. They use it and pass on the cost to the customer.

At least the situation seems to be better outside the UK and US.

Maybe at the moment. But the UK and the US are leading the way in exporting our supermarket system to the rest of the world.

It’s like a new kind of colonialism. It’s like, “Hey, here’s another way to make money out of the world.”

We are just beginning to realise that we have big problems with our food culture in Britain, but we like to think that when we go abroad at least there are countries that feed themselves differently, and largely that’s still true.

But big companies like Tesco are moving into Eastern Europe in a big way. At first they sell local produce, but slowly they change that to the over-packaged, over-processed value-added foods.

That’s what they make a lot of money out of. They’re not content selling potatoes or lamb chops when they can make so much more selling packets of crisps, fizzy drinks and ready meals.

Supermarkets have a vested interest in colonising those parts of the world that still eat in a much more healthy, sustainable way and changing them to a globalised intensive farming diet.

In Mexico, for example, now three out of every ten pesos spent on food in that country is spent in Wal-Mart. That comes along with reports of the rise in obesity levels in Mexico. There’s not much doubt about where that is coming from.

That’s what big food business and big supermarkets bring with them. They even then have the cheek to sell us slimming lines. The one that really gets me is the “healthy eating digestive” or the “slimmer’s caramel yoghurt”. Healthy eating is a whole new gravy train for the food industry.

You worked in a couple of supermarkets as part of your research for Shopped. What was it like on the other side of the till?

It was exhausting work that left me totally drained. Workers in supermarkets are being paid at levels just above the minimum wage for hard, boring work, while Tesco makes record profits.

Where are these profits coming from? They are coming off the back of their suppliers.

They are coming off the back of the customers who are being duped into thinking they are buying cheap food, which they’re not, and they are coming from the people who work for them, who are being paid just over the legal minimum. This needs to more widely known.

Joanna Blythman’s new book, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets (£12.99), is available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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