Supermarkets and the food we eat

In Britain and internationally supermarket chains have come to dominate the food distribution market. The tendency to monopolisation is evident. But with it go many practices that literally endanger our health, and with it also working conditions, wages, the environment and so on. The only answer is to take them over, remove the profit motive and run them in the interests of all working people.

We buy 95% of the food we eat in supermarkets. Four chains in Britain - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrison (now amalgamated with Safeway) are responsible for two thirds of all supermarket sales. Tesco, the market leader, alone accounts for 30% of all food sales. Supermarkets are central to the way food production is organised under modern capitalism.

So what? Aren't they competing with each other for a market share? Isn't the best way for a firm to compete and bump up sales to mark down prices? Don't people shop in these places because they're cheaper? So this is a sector where capitalism works!

I am going to argue however that the competition between supermarket chains is based on a systematic ratcheting down of standards across the board. Prices are driven down by reducing production costs. And that inevitably means: 1) forcing down the standards of living of the workers and small farmers who produce the food they sell, 2) wrecking the environment, 3) destroying communities and 4) all too often, poisoning the consumers.

Capitalist economists like competition, they say it brings out the best in the system and the big supermarket chains are certainly competing against each other. Every time I walk round my local Sainsbury's, signs constantly remind me of what the Tesco price for the equivalent product is. But this competition between supermarket chains is based on the collective monopoly they have over the suppliers. Because they sell such a big proportion of the food we eat, they have the whip hand over the suppliers. Economists call this buying power monopoly power.

Much of the food sold in supermarkets comes of course from farmers. Farmers, to many workers, are the bastards dependent on handouts from Europe who gave us mad cow disease! Cows are by nature vegetarian creatures, as a quick trip to a field near you will establish. Farmers fed cows with the remains of dead sheep in order to bump up their protein intake and get them to produce more milk. In doing so they passed the sheep disease scrapie to cows and it then jumped the species barrier to infect humans. So people died horribly as their brains in effect turned to sponge. All to save a little money!

Actually the story's a bit more complicated than that. Farming is a capitalist industry. It is dominated by big farmers, such as the "barley barons" of East Anglia. They behave exactly like any other capitalist. But there are a lot of small farmers out there as well. They are struggling. For years it has cost dairy farmers 21pence to produce a litre of milk. But the supermarkets demand they sell it to them for 18p. "Take it or leave it" is the message. The alternative for the farmer, given the stranglehold supermarkets hold over supply to the consumers, is to get nothing for the milk - to pour it away. A bigger farmer is more able to diversify - to offset any supermarket sales by seeking alternative outlets for their produce.

Other suppliers feel the pinch in the same way. In the first week of September it was announced that Northern Foods in Old Trafford was to close its gates with the loss of 600 jobs. They made pies and quiches, two thirds of which went to the supermarkets. Relentless pressure to cut prices from their principal buyer, Tesco, is to blame for the closure. One small food outlet a week goes to the wall through this process - and Northern Foods is small fry compared to Tesco.

Tragedy

Inevitably this pressure on small capitalists causes them to crack down on their workers. The tragedy of the Chinese cockle pickers drowned at Morecambe Bay shows that the gangmaster system is still alive and well. ‘Illegal' migrant workers criminalized by our immigration laws live thirty to a house, are bussed out to work at the crack of dawn and have their pathetic wages subjected to arbitrary deductions. All this is happening now to the "strawberry slaves" employed by S&A in Herefordshire whom the Transport and General Workers Union are trying to organise. S&A's main customers are Tesco and Sainsbury's. This is the kind of thing that Marx and Engels wrote about over a century ago. It still goes on, and the supermarkets are ringmasters of the whole show.

Those that survive are fleeced shamelessly by the big boys. They actually have to pay the supermarkets to get their goods displayed. What is most sinister is that this bullying is kept secret. Small firms dare not talk about it to journalists and researchers for fear of losing their outlets. For a larger branded product this is not a problem. The supermarket would get a lot of stick from customers if it didn't stock Heinz Baked Beans, for instance.

In this murky world, the supermarkets are accused of other dubious practices. For instance, they may be approached by a small capitalist with a good product idea. Then they'll copy the product and launch it nationally as an own label brand. Patrick Holden of the Soil Association (the outfit that verifies organic status) says, "A significant number of small organic businesses have suffered from supermarkets switching suppliers or abandoning a brand in favour of own label production. There is a tyranny about own label products that allows supermarkets to abuse small producers."

Tesco also holds reverse auctions, where the lowest charging supplier wins. Marxists believe that there is a tendency for capital to concentrate in bigger and bigger units. This is because of economies of scale, the ability of bigger firms to produce cheaper goods than smaller ones. But the rise of the supermarkets to dominance is not the result of competing with small shops on a level playing field. Supermarkets can insist on discounts that producers will not give to independent shops.

Food is subject to the same cost cutting - and that's a threat to our health. Felicity Lawrence points out in her book Not on the Label (Penguin Books, 2004) that, "Chicken, like other animals, have become industrialised and globalised." The poor old humble chicken is part of a global division of labour. She explains how the body parts are shipped out all over the world, for instance gizzards to Russia and chicken feet to China. But there was one part they did not know how to sell - the skin. So they invented the chicken nugget as a way of selling disguised skin together with mechanically recovered meat. Yum!

In case vegetarians are feeling smug at this point, they should read the next chapter of this truly scary book - on salads. Bagged salad leaves are washed in chlorine, the stuff they use in swimming pools. Lawrence comments, "Some chlorinated compounds are known to be cancer-causing, but there appears to be little research on foods treated with high doses of chlorine, the process having evolved in an ad hoc way." So the real problem is capitalism, not what we choose to eat.

Chicken nuggets are not very good for you. But they are an easy food for harassed parents to serve up to their kids. It is easy to sneer at these parents, but it really isn't their fault. It's not so easy to pick up a packet of processed food in a supermarket and work out exactly what's in it. Their kids are much more likely to be obese than they were twenty years ago. Eating junk food is a big part of the reason. Is it too outrageous to suggest that it ought to be illegal to sell food that poisons our kids? Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt says, "There's only so much governments can do... People need to want to change their lifestyles and take responsibility for their health." This government is so in thrall to business interests that it's not even prepared to fully support a ban on junk food adverts targeted at kids. Some of us would like Hewitt to ‘take responsibility' for being Health Minister and advocate a total advertising ban on junk food aimed at children rather than the half-way house now being proposed by Ofcom after much delay.

Pesticides

Supermarkets also play their part in mucking up the environment. Cost cutting means intensive farming. That in turn means the excessive use of pesticides. These kill the insects that skylarks eat. That's why you're less likely to hear skylarks these days. Pesticides could also be poisoning us as rainwater runs off the fields into the streams and into our water supply. In a previous article (Capitalism and the environment) we dealt with over-fishing, pointing out it was a result of the relentless pressure to come up with more and more cheap fish on the supermarket shelves.

As we know (see Capitalism and the environment) the main challenge facing human beings on the planet earth is global warming. This is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. This may lead to climate change, causing large parts of the earth's surface to become uninhabitable. Supermarkets are a major contributor to carbon emissions. Enter the shop and you are confronted with a picture of permanent summer, with green beans flown all the year round from Kenya for instance. There are beans in Tesco with more "air miles" than the Secretary General of the United Nations!

Recent estimates by scientists have suggested that temperatures may rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This could lead to more mass extinctions than since the dinosaurs died out. The problem is that life forms are dependent on each other in an ecosystem. For example, insects live on plants and are eaten by birds. Let Dr. Tim Sparks of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explain. "One of the biggest problems is that species don't adapt to warming at the same rate. So if you have a bird that feeds on an insect that relies on a certain plant for food, and any one of these responds differently to warming differently to the others, the whole system can break down." Can the plant flee southward or northward as fast as the insects and birds? If not, they're all doomed.

It has been estimated that to get a kilo of apples from New Zealand generates a kilo of CO2, all of which contributes to global warming. For every calorie we get from an iceberg lettuce flown from Los Angeles, 127 calories are burned up in fuel. To get an idea of the damage air transport does, recall the story of Barbara Haddrill. Invited to a friend's wedding in Australia, she decided to go by sea and land and not to fly. She worked out that the flight would use up enough energy per passenger to heat five homes for a whole year. This was a principled decision by Barbara, but it's not always an option for people. What is needed is a complete change in the priorities imposed by capitalism.

This is not an argument against an international division of labour. Clearly if we were confined to British produce we would never have a cup of tea or coffee. But when we read that we in Britain export milk to Holland and they export milk to us we have to ask, what the hell is going on?

National distribution

Excessive airfreighting of food is not the only way supermarkets pile up carbon emissions. They all have a centralised system of national distribution based on a handful of huge "just-in-time" distribution bases. So orders placed from just 110 desks act as gatekeepers between 3.2 million farmers and 250 million consumers. Often this means goods being shipped from one end of the country and then being shipped back again. It also means, of course, that it won't be as fresh as if it came from down the road. Imagine how, in a planned economy, these links would allow consumers to inform producers of what they want collectively and ensure that their wants were met. Under capitalism these links just give enormous power to the supermarket chains.

Diversity is a good thing in itself. We have hundreds of different species of strawberry and literally thousands of different kinds of apple in this country alone. Yet the only strawberry type you'll find in a supermarket is the Elsanta. Why? Because it's tastier? Er, no. Because it's a survivor. It can travel for hundreds of miles in the back of a lorry and sit in a carton under artificial light in a supermarket for over a week before being sold. It's all about profits!

Supermarkets insist on displaying only ‘perfect' fruit and vegetables on their shelves (such as bright red apples that taste of nothing). This obviously means that tasty but knobbly and misshapen fruit and vegetables are wasted on a grand scale. The supermarkets don't worry about this. They won't buy them from the farmer, so it's the farmer that bears the cost. As counterpart to this, they also waste resources through unnecessary packaging. Nature provides every cucumber with a perfectly acceptable protection and wrapping called the skin. So why does every supermarket bought cucumber have to be encased in plastic? Even mainstream newspaper articles have ridiculed the notion of covering coconuts with a wrapper. At this point the reader may be thinking to themselves, "Blimey, capitalism produces starvation and war, and this bloke is going on about the plastic on cucumbers." Fair point, but it's just a small example of the waste of resources of the capitalist mindset.

Aside from workers, consumers' health and the environment - the other victims of supermarket power are local communities. The growth of out-of-town supermarkets has led to what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘ghost town Britain'. Here again dirty tricks are part of the story. Tesco has proved particularly adept at manipulating the planning system. Whenever a superstore is opened, the local paper will uncritically publish a press release.

Asda

High street independent shops can't compete on price with out-of-town supermarkets and town centres go into decline. They become run-down, as shops are forced out of business. Poor people are less likely to own cars, so they end up paying more for basic foodstuffs in the town centre shops that aren't boarded up.

Asda is actually owned by Wal-Mart, which is, by some criteria, the biggest company in the world. Wal-Mart employs nearly two million workers worldwide. In 2005 it made $300 billion in sales from 6,600 stores around the globe. Bob Ortega comments (in his book In Sam we trust - Wal-Mart was founded by Sam Walton), "Wal-Mart's executives have demonstrated an often breathtaking contempt for laws and regulations. In the US, courts again and again have found the company to have lied, to have illegally falsified, destroyed and withheld documents, to have committed civil fraud, to have wilfully sold counterfeit goods, to have deliberately discriminated against disabled job applicants, to have illegally fired workers for interracial dating, to have discriminated against black and Mexican employees in other ways, to have allowed managers to sexually harass women workers - and to have fired women who had the temerity to complain." You get the idea. That's how Wal-Mart got where it is today.

Thomas Friedman has a different take on Wal-Mart. He is one of the foremost ideologists of ‘globalisation', the view that capitalism is all-powerful and benign, and resistance to it is useless. In his book The world is flat, he looks saucer-eyed at their distribution centre in Bentonville, Arkansas and rhapsodises, "Call it ‘the Wal-Mart symphony in multiple movements' - with no finale." And goes on to comment, "Its role as one of the ten forces that flattened (globalised) the world is undeniable."

The reader may find all this one-sided. Haven't we all seen those Waitrose ads where they demand that the farmers who supply them leave wider field edges so dormice and barn owls can thrive? They're all heart! Of course it's the farmer who's likely to lose out, not Waitrose. And we'll be encouraged to pay a premium at the checkout because we're all softies. The enemy is not the supermarket chains. The enemy is the capitalist system. But capitalism has evolved the supermarket system as the orchestral conductor of food production, in so far as there is one. Through competition, they dictate terms to all the other players. We need to take them over as part of the socialist transformation of society.