FEATURE: Supermarket Secrets Finale
Here are my thoughts and summary of the second part of the superb UK Channel 4 Dispatches show 'Supermarket Secrets'.
Supermarkets know we care about the food we eat, about our environment and the processes and animals involved and about our health.
Supermarkets know what we eat and when we eat it. They track our consumption like you would not believe. They know we want green and fair produce.
They apply the minimum of effort with the most legally-permissible 'advertising'. The result is that the gap between what we think we buy and the reality is truly vast.
For all the Supermarkets 'meaningful intentions' the facts speak loudly. According to this Friends of the Earth 2003 study the supermarket code fails farmers as the farmers fear that by complaining about the supermarket pressure applied to them they face bankruptcy etc.
Tonights show showed some footage filmed by various animal rights groups. The most amazing thing was that in a duck farm (where ducks live out their entire lives in a shed - bet you thought you were buying ducks that lived on ponds eh?) a dead duck floated in a water trough.
Now if the place is that well managed who on earth would fail to notice that? Yes it could have fallen in just before the filming began. But what about the 14 dead ducks they filmed lying on the floor? The cynic will probably claim that the Animal Rights 'nutters' probably killed the ducks themselves. Absurd! Of course the footage was inadmissable as evidence in court. Obviously!
The RSPCA gives the Freedom Food stamp to inspected farms but the inspection regime seems to be as rigourous as an elastic band. What a waste of time and money! Clearly the inspections need more teeth and ferocity in order to be effective. I am sure the RSPCA would agree that more needs to be done. It is not their fault. They are a charity doing their best. A charity doing the governments job!
Ever noticed how the first aisle in a supermarket is the fresh fruit and vegetables? Makes sense if they want to project the image of a natural place to get your nutritional needs right?
The problem with supermarket fruit and veg is that all the stuff you see has won a beauty contest. I mean ok, no one wants to bite into a maggoty apple or a blighted potato but the supermarkets have just gone too far.
The average apple is photographed 72 times (!!!) by an image recognition system that started out in fighter jets. (HA!) The photos are computer analysed to weed out the blemished or mis-shapen fruit. Madness! Did we ever say all apples have to look the same? Did we ever say we had a problem with a bit of mud? Hell no! But conformity equals efficiency and that equals higher profit margins for you know who. So it suits the supermarkets and we put up with it.
Surely the cost of all that conformity, ie the wastage and chemical cost to the producer, the cost of moving produce around the world and the many costs to the environment ie farmers forced to use more pesticide than required to make sure that not a single aphid is left which would get their crate rejected, could be turned into savings passed onto the producer and the consumer? And all for a bit of mud and amusing shaped vegetables. Fine with me!
Upto an astonishing 30% of all fruit and veg is dumped on appearance alone. And millions continue to starve. I am not saying that we could ship all the excess to the starving masses...maybe we could...but the point is we are being inefficient and we the consumer, and the farmers, are picking up the tab. Truly insane!
Cosmetically perfect fruit and veg is often actually chemically more dangerous than processed babyfood. So whilst you might think weening on real fruit is healthier for the baby chances are you are wrong. Make sure it is organic!!!
Upto 40% of all organic fruit and veg (10% higher than normal) is rejected on appearance alone. The farmer pays the tab. That explains the higher cost then. As one organic potato farmer said put it 'I could produce more produce with lower waste and at a lower cost if people's obsession with the shape etc would end.'
The solution seems simple: shop more directly from now on. Seek out farm shops and farmers markets. Buy direct if you can. Check out Bigbarn if you live in the UK and LocalHarvest if you live in the US. Anyone know any similar sites for other countries?
Another farmer said that whilst he thought the fruit quality had improved (I imagine selective breeding will of course have that effect in the short term - see banana quote below) he was now totally dependent on the supermarkets. Crack pipe anyone?
Incidentally our obsession with Bananas is leading to the end of Bananas as we know them...I kid ye not! According to the magazine, Popular Science:
After 15,000 years of human cultivation, the banana is too perfect, lacking the genetic diversity that is key to species health. What can ail one banana can ail all. A fungus or bacterial disease that infects one plantation could march around the globe and destroy millions of bunches, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
We have less choice than ever before for example how many of these apples have you ever heard of at your supermarket?.
Since 1950 the average dairy cow yield has increased by more than 800%. How can that be good for cows or produce better milk? They use a technique now called 'zero-grazing' where the cows live in sheds all their lives (just like the ducks) and just get fed and milked. Lovely! Organic free-range cows for me please. At Christmas this year I shall be buying the most relaxed free-range organic corn-fed bird I can find. Of course going vegetarian would be even better. Have been there before and am slowly moving in that direction to be honest.
Food travels further than ever. This costs us an estimated £9billion a year in the UK. It is estimated that the average UK Sunday Roast Dinner (roast beef and all the trimmings for our non UK friends) travels 26,234 miles to get to your plate. The entire earth has a circumference of less than that at approximately 24,900 miles!!! Are we nuts?
For produce to travel better its production needs to be more tightly controlled to prevent spoilage. For produce to be more tightly controlled more and more chemicals are required for preservation, packaging and production.
For example, when you buy a bagged salad (which costs approx 3 times the price of fresh salad by the way - still that 30 seconds is worth it eh?) did you know it has a 'modified atmosphere' in the packaging to keep it fresh until you open that bag. That explains why it lasts about a day once you open it.
In Spain the produce looks more real and tastes a whole lot better too. They are obsessed with smell and feel whereas in the UK (and the US I suppose) looks are everything.
And as for the cost this show did a superb price comparison. And the result was that on fruit and veg the local small scale grocer came out on top. No huge overheads, packaging and marketing budgets...equals better value for all.
We are being ripped off and our health and environment is being compromised. We are paying for our own demise.
I will be buying as much unprocessed and organic produce as I can from now on, even more than usual. Cost is always a factor but where I can buy better I will.
But you know what, as with anything, you need to educate yourself. Don't take my word for it or the supermarkets word for it. This is just one man's opinion. Take it or leave it.
Books by Authors featured in the show:
Shopped : The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets
Not on the Label : What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate