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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Consumer advocates, in general, concentrate on two things--price and quality. I therefore find it hard to understand the logic of the Guardian's consumer editor, Felicity Lawrence:

If the battle to be top dog in the grocery market has resulted in a price war and we all get cheaper food, does it matter who owns what?

Of course it does. This is not a zero-sum game. Someone has to pay for those price cuts, and it ain't going to be the supermarkets. The big five - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Safeway and Morrison's - made £2.2bn combined profits last year. Farmers who actually produce our food meanwhile faced an agricultural slump, not just in Britain but across the world.

Ignore that what Ms. Lawrence describes in fact is a zero-sum game. Is she in favour of more expensive food?

A leader in the New Statesman back in October had this to say on the subject:

While supermarkets continue to keep food prices low, at whatever cost to the health of the nation and the survival of the small farmer, the government is unlikely to intervene. But the argument that food must be kept cheap for the benefit of the poor is a defeatist one. In effect, we are putting food producers out of business to subsidise low-wage industries.

The real beneficiaries of cheap food are not the poor. As the think-tank Demos argued in an important pamphlet earlier this year - Inconvenience Food - large out-of-town supermarkets favour car drivers able to make a substantial number of purchases in one outing. The poor also bear the brunt of the failure to link food policy to health. The country has divided into the 'food rich', able to eat cheap strawberries all year round, and four million 'food poor', with inadequate access to sufficient nutritious food.

The quoted report recommends a tax on fatty foods. Independent of whether or not that is a good idea (it would require a government definition of fat, among other things) such ideas are, at the very least, condescending, assuming that the poor do not know any better than to buy "bad" food. Theodore Dalrymple does a good job of dismissing this, saying that "this approach leads [the elite] to view those same people as helpless automata, in the grip of forces that they cannot influence, let alone control".

For their own good, the poor need to have "bad" food be expensive. The revealed preference of poor shoppers indicates a preference of "bad" food; why is this a problem at all? If these preferences are bad, why are supermarkets to blame for it? Maybe the poor heavily discount the future, leading them to not think much about the long-term effects of present consumption. Maybe the taste of "bad" food overrides any long-term considerations. Maybe they believe that the hype about obesity is exactly that--hype. Whatever the reason, it is hard to see why such behaviour merits a response--why supermarkets must be compelled to be socially responsible and sell expensive, healthy food to people who clearly don't want it.