By Laura Sandys, The Times, 14th February 2013
Your £1 cottage pie contains less meat and more corn syrup
When Sir Terry Leahy appeared on Desert Island Discs he rightly trumpeted the decline in food bills from 50 per cent to 10 per cent of family income. His remarks were broadcast just days before the horsemeat scandal revealed fraud in the food supply chain. That was not a coincidence.
However, in the past five years we have seen food prices increase by a third. This problem will only get worse as we feel the effects of the American drought, Russia’s recent grain export ban and ever greater Chinese demand. The era of cheap food is, sadly, over.
But in a highly competitive market our food industry has not changed its business model. Instead it has tried to adapt to food inflation by fitting a more expensive product into a cheap price structure. The result is that serious corners have been cut. Retailers blithely claim that they are absorbing the costs of rises in prices of meat and grain. But the truth is that the consumer is unwittingly “absorbing” them through reductions in the quality of ingredients and smaller quantities.
So the £1 cottage pie in your local freezer shop will be the same price that it has been for years, but today will contain less meat and more artificial fillers such as high fructose corn syrup. This will not be accompanied by an ad campaign saying “30 per cent less meat”. Packaging too is “absorbing” food price rises, so there is an increase in the fresh air you are now buying when you reach for your cereal packets. It is the poorest people who are most vulnerable to both the price rises and the decline in food quality. The horsemeat scandal has focused on the role of supermarkets and their supply chains, but there is a whole sector of the population who can’t afford to shop in supermarkets.
Many of my constituents in Kent buy their food from pound shops, cornershops or takeaways, where the quality is even lower. In some neighbourhoods, a significant proportion of families in privately rented homes do not even have a cooker: they have to rely on a microwave and fast food.
Britain will have to change its approach to food. We cannot contract out our food policy to an industry whose gospel is “cheap as chips”. The Government must take back its role as consumer protector from the supermarkets and the food industry — and ensure that the real interests of ordinary shoppers are upheld. We must also put a lot more effort into helping the most vulnerable to feed themselves in an era of ever-rising prices. We can do little to stop global food inflation. But we can stop British consumers from being misled and begin to value food properly.