“What’s Ireland Eating?” – Part Two

November 15th, 2011 - Uncategorized

In last week’s article, I wrote about a documentary that was shown on RTE at the beginning of this month, which posed the question: “What’s Ireland Eating?” The documentary, which is still available to watch on the RTE player, is based on the results of a survey of the grocery-buying habits of thousands of Irish households, and also presents the results of the National Nutrition Survey, which was carried out by Irish University Nutrition Alliance. The documentery raised some very important issues, and in last week’s article, I wrote about the impact our food choices are having on our health. This week I will focus on how the way we shop is affecting our economy.

Once upon a time, people bought their meat from the butchers, fruit and veg from the greengrocers and so on. The food they bought was often locally sourced, supporting not only the local shops, but also local farmers and other food producers. Nowadays, 8 out of every 10 euro we spend on food is spent in supermarkets, most of which are large, multi-national companies who import much of their produce. Over the past ten years, more and more large supermarkets have sprung up, and in the same period, over half of all independent retailers either disappeared or were taken over by chains.

Small retailers struggle to compete with large supermarkets on the edge of their towns. Many people who regularly shop in supermarkets only intend to do part of their shopping there, but would still like to be have access to local shops. However, just a small shift in the shopping habits of local people in favour of large supermarkets often means that local shops can no longer stay in business.

Large supermarkets generally argue that new stores provide jobs to the local area, but studies have actually shown that for every 10 jobs a new supermarket provides, 15 jobs are lost in the area over the floowing 2-3 years. For example, a new supermarket may not only force local butchers and greengrocers to make staff redundancies, or close altogether, but the local farmers and other producers who they buy from will also lose business, and may have to lay off workers or go out of business themselves.

In this country, a small number of large multi-national supermarket chains have become dominant, and they therefore have a great deal of power over their suppliers in terms of prices and terms.

Large multi-national supermarkets generally prefer to stock a few well-known products alongside their cheaper own-brands, effectively squeezing out the smaller producers. This means that most large multinational supermarkets will not stock locally-produced items such as dairy products and honey.

Much of the produce stocked in large multi-national supermarkets is imported from other countries, where production costs are cheaper and standards are lower, and Irish producers are finding it more and more difficult to compete. The real cost to the consumer of this cheap produce is the reduction in quality. For example, cheap imported chicken fillets from Eastern Europe are transported to Ireland in gas-filled packaging and are usually 7-9 days old by the time they reach the shops

Small suppliers, who are dependendent on large retailers to stock their products, are largely powerless to stand up to the supermarkets. The Irish Farmer’s Association estimates that production costs have risen by over 50%, since 1995 yet prices paid to Irish suppliers have dropped by around 7%. Suppliers also have to bear the cost of Supermarket promotions such as “two for one” offers and discounted prices, while the executives and shareholders of the supermarkets reap the all benefits.

So the next time you have a choice between shopping at the supermarket, or at your local butchers, greengrocers or farmer’s market; or the choice between a locally-produced product and a cheap import; remember that you may not be saving as much as you think. Keeping Irish producers in business keeps food closer to home, and keeps money in your local community, and in the country. So the next time you are shopping, make the choice to buy Irish products or local products, or you may find that you ne longer have the choice.

The “What’s Ireland Eating” Documentary is available to watch on the RTE player (www.rte.ie/player) until Tuesday 22nd November.