Sunday, 6 September 2015

Supply, Spuds and the Supermarket.

Gareth Wynn Jones is a rural champion of all that is good about the farming life. His tweets and Facebook page make one want to frolic on the hills and sing Bread of Heaven and ask to be made a honorary Welshwoman.

In the second of his series looking into why the glorious local food made or produced  in Wales is not getting onto Welsh Plates as often as it could, he looks more in depth at the grip the Supermarkets have on our spending and connection to food. 

When nine out of ten of us buy our weekly food and drink from one of the big chains it seems like an insurmountable mountain to climb. The convenience of having everything under one roof and low prices keeps us going back with £10 billion being spent every month.

Gareth wants to understand the complexity of the food supply chain and whether it can be simplified to allow farmers and other producers a fairer cut of the profits. He feels the supermarkets have  a vice like grip on access to food in the UK and so squeezing the farmers too much. 

He is ready to be told some hard truths, but his enthusiasm for local produce for local people is something we should all be pushing for in my opinion. Ancient industries like hill farming in Wales and Scotland, Hop Gardens in Kent and Orchards in the West Country are under threat from cheaply available raw materials from abroad. The UK's heritage is built on our fertile land and skilled agricultural and artisan history, supermarkets are putting those skills at risk while they spoon feed us homogenised uniform goods at Rock bottom prices and mass produced levels.

Despite contacting the big five and the two Discounters, no one wants to speak to Gareth about the Supply Chain and so to make some headway, he goes to meet the Best Butcher in Britain ,Welshman Ieuan Edwards (with a name like that, how could he be any other nationality?) who has a lot of experience dealing with the big five supermarkets.

Numbers in the profession have gone from 40,000 to 8000 local butchers so to remain competitive he went into collaboration with the supermarkets. " The Traditional Welsh Sausage Company " requires 20 tonnes of Shoulder Pork a week, so he sources Welsh pork for his shop but the sausage  factory necessitates flexibility. However Ieuan has strict quality  standards so when one retailer asked him to use cheaper cuts in the sausage and blankly refused and by sticking to his guns he maintained the order.

Gareth decides to find out just how smaller producers are treated by the big supermarkets and the food policy expert he meets is not encouraging. It seems that supermarkets can demand up front fees from suppliers, or change the contracts demanding a smaller yield year on year so that producers are left with a glut they don't know what to do with. They can even delay payments to local suppliers for anything up to 130 days .This  is downright appalling! If you have been given a specialist service you should ruddy we'll pay for it in a timely manner!

We hear so often of a Supermarket Price War, but prices are not lowered by the supermarket taking the shortfall, no the supplier is paid less per unit so allow for drastic slashes in price and the prime example is that of milk.

With four pints of milk now selling at between 89p and £1 by volume milk is now cheaper than bottled water. Milk is being sold at less than it costs to produce and whilst the supermarkets claim to be shouldering the shortfall, it is affecting more than the farmer. In actual fact the Milk Wars have pretty much sounded the death knell for the local milkman, the sight of a milk float on the streets of the United Kingdom is pretty much non existent. 

I can bear this out from personal experience. I leave the house just when deliveries used to be at their height and now I never hear that tell tale drones or see a float, which is a real shame as to some older folks, the milkman was the only friendly face you saw regularly. They provided more than milk, the provided a community spirit.

Gareth is incensed and I can see why.  I can see the draw for the public and I do buy cheaply as we consume a lot of milk in my household. But then again if the price went up again I would pay it as it is so vital so it is the Supermarkets playing on need to entice folk into stores to spend more on other goods once the milk has snared them.

The make up of the dairy industry is changing with mega dairies being the place where milk is sourced rather than the smaller, family owned and in my opinion lusher greener farms. One Thousand  dairy farmers in Wales have left the industry in the last 10 years.  The 89p four pinta is not sustainable for smaller scale producers and so mass production steps in. 

I am no Bovine expert, but  to my mind the Cow cannot be having a better time in a mega dairy.  In a small  farm  situation it is easy to see if a cow is ill and it will feel comfortable with familiar faces. I know that might sound trite but think about a London tube at Rush Hour it makes a person feel stressed and frazzled, this must translate into the quality of the milk in a crowded milking room , releasing stress hormones into the milk.

Rock bottom prices can  actually  have a detrimental affect  on the consumer and the Horse-meat scandal of recent years is a prime example. They demand for the lowest unit price meant beef products were being partially made up with horse meat from the continent, permanently damaging the brand strength of favourites like Findus. 

The humble spud is the vegetable tuber of choice of almost every British household so it seems fitting that when Tesco finally agrees to show the journey from field to plate that it is to follow some potatoes. 

"Puffin Produce" started out as a farmer owned Cooperative in the 1970s, selling dirty mixed potatoes. In the 1990 demand for washed pre-packed potatoes meant that had to commercialise and upscale. They now pack about 35,000 tons of potatoes a year. The farmers they source from fill  16 cold storage sheds holding 1440 tons of potatoes each. Worryingly though, some of them have sat in cold storage for almost a year!! Fresh from the field, my bottom Tescos! Yes I know potatoes keep, their tuberous nature making them last, but this also means, we consumers get a much older spud and flavour must surely deteriorate even in cold store as they have been separated from the plant and the source of their nutritional value for months.

Next comes the sorting so that the bags are uniform in shape and sizing. A machine capable of sorting fifty tons an hour hurtles through this. Grading on a small scale would not keep up with demand from Supermarkets open for 361 days a year. The potatoes are then washed and polished, yes you read that correctly, polished! This is basically brushing the potato. The man at puffin Produce says the public demand a consistently good quality potato, but really I am not sure that a polished potato makes a difference to taste. 

The vegetable box man from the previous episode claimed that a bit of mud on root vegetables keeps it fresher for longer anyway,ergo perhaps if the supermarkets bought dirty potatoes, they might not need to be cold stored for quite so long!

Damaged potatoes are hand picked from the production line by human beings and they are sent for processing for animal feed. The potatoes are weighed and bagged with labelling that clearly shows the sourcing and the use by date. The bags are ready for sale as they are loaded into the crates that the Supermarket produce sections use to load the bags into front of house displays.. 

(My first proper job was as a produce assistant in a UK Supermarket so I know exactly  how heavy they are and how many bags can be safely stacked before the tumble risk hits.)

Sadly for these spuds they have a bit further to go before they get to store. The potatoes drive all the way to Bristol to the port of Avonmouth where the go into a massive redistribution centre, into  sheds the size of five football fields. These  are sourced by five hundred lorries a day three hundred and sixty five days a year. Everything in the warehouse at a minute past twelve in the morning will be gone within the day. And Gareth's potatoes? 

They are returning to Wales to the town of Haverfordwest situated in Pembrokeshire, ten miles from where those lowly spuds were bagged! Lunacy. 

I concede that the fifty odd Welsh stores need supply and that for puffin to supply them there would need to sending fifty supply trucks out, but thinking on it the potatoes have already travelled 200 miles in a round trip so even if one delivery a day is required to supply this one shop that is 73,000 miles. 

 So I did a bit of rough maths if the potatoes went from Haverfordwest west to Llandudno which is across Wales and about 150 miles.. So a shorter journey with a good many of the  other fifty being closer? And some further away of course, but definitely something to consider.  I am guessing it is a simplistic approach and not sound business for Tesco, but I do think it seems a environmental cost as well as a economic one to have so many lorries ( five hundred in and so it stands to reason , five hundred out again) traversing the country every single day when local farms might be able to source local shops with exactly the same produce. Still Tesco spuds but with a closer link between the earth it came from and the basket it goes into.


  1. Excellent review of episode 2 of Farmer & The Food Chain!

    1. Thank you! I have been proud of the efforts on this show thus far. Have one more to do !