Monday, 26 November 2012

All bark, no bite for the supermarket watchdog

About 10 years ago I read a book which had a big impact on how I thought about food, and particularly food shopping. Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined its Appetite by Joanna Blythman really brought home to me the shocking state of our British food culture, and how we should all, ultimately, be responsible for thinking about what we eat, as well as how our food gets to us, and make choices which support sustainable and ethical practices both here and in the increasing number of developing countries which support our desire for, among other things, out-of-season salads.

Fueled by information from Blythman's Shopped, Felicity Lawrence's Not on the Label, and Paul Robert's The End of Food WH and I gradually moved to a situation where, whilst without giving up a supermarket shop entirely, we were purchasing (and continue to purchase) the majority of our food from a combination of local suppliers and an organic box scheme. As I've commented many times before, we've long been in the habit of making about 90% of our meals from scratch, we bake our own bread and we make an effort to grow and preserve our own.

However, for those of us juggling commutes, small children, demanding jobs, and time spent with friends and families, supermarkets do offer the convenience of picking up a range of essentials in one fell swoop. The Cooperative, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose consistently come out top in polls looking at ethical supermarkets, but sadly in a 2011 poll by The Grocer, a supermarket's ethics are the top driver for where we shop for only 6% of us, meaning that any sweeping change to how supermarkets operate still needs to be driven by regulation and government oversight.

Making it doubly disappointing that the government's promised Supermarkets Ombudsman has already been downgraded to an adjudicator - thus focusing on a reactive approach relying on complaints being brought, rather than a proactive curb on abuses relating to suppliers, food adulteration, price-fixing, etc, etc. Not to mention how such a watchdog might have been able to address the negative impact supermarkets have on jobs, average wages, animal welfare, and the environment (at the local, national and international level).

Another let down from this coalition government.

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