Look Beyond The Label

15th November 2013

Clare Finney gets passionate about the price of bread

Recently I was chatting with an independent London baker who, the previous week, had received something of a spreading from a customer outraged that he charged over £2 per loaf. She’d told him that it was daylight robbery for what was essentially yeast and flour; he had responded with a careful breakdown of the labour involved. “Each loaf takes about four hours to make. How much would you pay yourself per hour?” he questioned. Needless to say, she stormed off (cross, but unable to answer) – yet the conversation has stuck with me, and has shifted my buying habits further toward my local independent shops than before.

Stop to think about it, and the outrage is not his price, but the mere pennies that supermarkets charge for the ingredients, labour and craft that goes into a bloomer or a bannock or a bap – not to mention the ridiculously inexpensive prices charged for many other so-called convenience products such as butter or milk. Supermarkets have branded them in their ‘value’ ranges, but, in reality, they do nothing but devalue the product and our appreciation. Look beyond their label, and you’ll find a sad and sorry story of struggling farmers, suffering animals and other such horrors, as became all too obvious earlier in the year when horsemeat was found lurking in the food chain.

The solution, we’re told frequently, is to buy close to the source – yet anyone who’s ventured into an artisan baker recently may well have reacted the same way as the woman I spoke of earlier: with shock, and confusion as to why the difference between supermarkets, and independent traders should be so stark. Like her, we want to know what makes the lamb chops in our local butchers better, for example, and why we should pay the difference – so I did the glaringly obvious. I asked.
Dave Butler of WH Higgins butchers in Chorleywood was happy to answer my questions. So was Nikki Gainsford at the village’s fishmongers, Catch of the Day. So was Sussex farmer Steve Hook, who caused a bow wave when he decided to sell his own milk directly rather than down a lengthy chain. Such producers and food-preparers are proud to talk about the hard work, knowledge and care that goes into what they do – it’s why they’re in the business in the first place. Yet while their supermarket-supplying peers would like to share in their passion, they often cannot afford to.

As Hook commented, toward the end of my tour of his East Sussex farm, no one goes into dairy farming not liking cows. “They feel as strongly as I do about them,” he goes on, “but they can’t show it if they are to stay afloat”. No more could Matt Smith (no, not that Matt Smith) care about baking, if he were to sell his loaves at the supermarket price of 75p. “If this was an industrial bakery,” he observes tartly, “we'd employ three or four people and it would be automated.” Instead, they have over ten people for hand manufacture, and insist on quality ingredients. They allow the bread to rise naturally without adding extra yeast.

The difference is tenfold, though not one you appreciate before tasting it; like most essentials, the same type of breads look very much alike. Yet no one will suffer on account of an automated loaf. Where pricing matters, as far as animal and people welfare is concerned, is in the meat, egg and dairy trade where the pitifully low sums paid by big retailers for produce is forcing small family farms out of business and leaving only the intensive, agribusinesses farms behind them – and if you want to know what that means, ask the hens.

If they could talk, they’d tell you that last year a sodden summer sent the price of hen food – corn, maize etc – soaring from 53 pence per dozen eggs in March to 62p per dozen in September. Supermarkets, wary of scaring customers off in the midst of recession, continued to price their eggs the same. Quickly and surely farmers were forced to quit or change tactics: a free range hen eats over 10% more feed per day than a hen in indoor systems, because she’s running around, so the free-range egg sector is particularly badly affected by high food cost. And the result, says the BFREPA, is that ‘the British Free Range hen could become much rarer’, while battery eggs, whose reputation for animal cruelty and poor hygiene was the talk of the town just a few years ago, are a much more common sight on the shelves.

At this point the cows might chip in. Like the hens, they’ve suffered at the hands of poor weather, to the extent that their silage this year has been ‘the worst on record’. For organic, ethical farmers like Steve Hook this is disastrous: the cows have been stuck indoors, an extra cost, and their organic commitments rightly forbid them to increase grass growth by adding fertilizers. “Despite the increase in farm gate milk price from 25p to 30p per litre since last July the extra income farmers have received has been more than swallowed up by an average increase in costs,” says Nick Everington, the chair of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. Though less worse off than last year, farmers are still losing money, which is why every week in Britain there is a dairy famer packing up. “The money you get from selling to Dairy Crest or whatever will probably cover those cost of feeding cows and operating farm, but it will not leave you any for your own life or for investing in the farm,” says Hook. “No wonder the average age of a dairy farmer is 58. Family farms are dying because no young people want to come into it.” For Hook there was, and is, only one answer: bypass the middlemen.

His view is that in the food chain the only person that makes any margin is the last seller. “Only by selling my own milk directly to the consumer have I made the farm viable,” he says. His butter and cream and milk are all unpasturised and unhomogenised – and as fresh as you could hope for: on the day it’s delivered you’ll be drinking something which just 36 hours ago was in a cow. What makes this possible is the fact it’s priced fairly and Hook himself – rather than a retailer or a pasteurizing firm – receives the money. The cows are milked twice a day, they feed on wild grass (as opposed to the manufactured ‘high spec’ feed forced upon their intensively farmed cousins), and spend 45% of their time grazing on the Pevensey levels. “The average age of a cow is six years in conventional herds” Hook tells me with sorrow. “Ours is ten. They live longer, because they are less stressed.”

Hook’s sadness is twofold: that fellow farmers cannot have with their cows the close relationship that he has with his , and that milk has now become so devalued. “Dairy farmers across the country are producing this amazing substance, and it’s sold as a cheap commodity” he complains. “Being artisan and niche does mean that, yes, it’s at the top end in terms of quality – but the price paid for it is far nearer the real value of the food than that which you’d normally pay.”

The grim reality is that our basics are almost always sold below production price because that’s the only way supermarkets can keep the ‘basket factor’ – the 10 to 15 items customers buy weekly, and which will affect the sum cost of their shopping the most if they increase – under their control.

For us as consumers, the answer really is to buy local. Buy direct from the producer, or as close as you can, and you’re guarantee to pay a fair price, and one that has a good chance of reaching them. Besides which, you’ll get a much better product. At WH Higgins the butcher, “the meat is better, it’s been hung, trimmed, and butchered properly, and we can get exactly the cut and the portion you’re after – top, bottom, sides, whatever,” Butler says. “You don’t get that in a supermarket.” They might charge more – and it is mere pennies, usually – but the proof is in the production, as Butler explains.

“When meat is hung, it matures: the muscles relax and contract. It tastes better as a result, but the supermarkets avoid it because it loses weight.” Even meat with ‘21-days-matured’ on the label is no different: “meat can’t mature in a vacuum pack” he remarks, with disdain. Instead of being butchered properly, joints and steaks are invariably bunged into boxes, with all the rubbish that a proper butcher would have cut away hidden at the bottom. The making of sausages and burgers is outsourced. In contrast Butler makes all his own sausages and burgers on site, has trained for years to be a butcher – far more than can be said of those working behind a supermarket’s meat counter – and as for his meat suppliers (poultry from Norfolk, pork from Scotland, beef from Spitalfields market) “we’ve had the same, who we know and visit regularly, for years.”
Opinions vary among the independents as to whether the situation is improving. Butler himself is pessimistic – “we’re all trying to save a shilling or two. Look at Primark – still heaving after all that fuss with the child labour” – while Nikki Gainsford is more upbeat. “I think a lot more people are interested in supporting local businesses now, and having that personal touch” she says. All in all there is a growing appreciation that food has a value beyond the dinner table and the buy-one-get-one-free offers we’ve grown used to. “People want to know where our fish come from, how they were caught, how to cook it. They have become more questioning,” she says.

Being trained fishmongers means that they can answer those questions and others like it, safe in the knowledge that what they say about their suppliers – day boats from across the country run by fishermen whom they know personally, and who fish responsibly – is the truth. This is important at any time – if ‘Horsegate’ taught us anything, it was to know our sources – but it is particularly important when it comes to fluctuations in supply. Anyone who has gone out for British lamb recently will know that prices have shot up – the sad and inevitable result of the snow drifts and freezing temperatures that coincided with the lambing season. Yet climate and weather patterns affect food far more frequently, and seriously, than supermarkets let on. “The cost of salmon and cod has risen lately, due to sea temperature patterns, but if you ask us why we’ve raised the prices we can explain that, just as when they drop again,’ says Nikki. Catch of the Day ensures that their fishermen get paid fairly accordingly, but they do try to be competitive, and if they’ve got a glut of a particular fish (as I write it’s pollock and haddock, but it changes daily) the price will dive too.

Today, it’s simple: if you value food and the rich heritage behind growing and preparing it, then buy from local independents. Not only will you be supporting your local economy, helping to keep alive the small-scale producers, but you’ll be doing justice to all the animals, people, skill and commitment that make your ‘essentials’ great. Give it a year, and supermarkets might also start to clean up their act. Things are already shifting – Waitrose in particular is committed to ethical and sustainable practices – and a bill given Royal Assent in April sets out rules by which the top ten grocery retailers must abide in order to treat their suppliers fairly and lawfully. Christine Tacon, the woman charged with the responsibility of implementing the code, took up her post (Groceries Code Adjudicator) in June.

Among the list of stipulations are: “no retrospective discounts, compensation paid for inaccurate forecasting, and no demanding listing fees,” she tells me. The hope, that this will give suppliers the stability to help them grow, innovate and compete in the market, is one worth holding out for. In the meantime, though, nothing quite beats a shopping experience like the one I had at a cheese stall in Amersham run by Open Air Foods. There, they buy from a range of local artisan cheese makers and UK producers, and are full of tales about them. One, which manager Gemma Holden visited recently, is called Wobbly Bottom Farm, and makes goats cheese sourced from goats who all have personal names.

“These types of visits and storytelling we can then transfer to the stall and relay to our customers,” she says. “They are not just buying cheese but also the added value of knowing that, right from the very origins, their purchase has had quality, taste and passion as the priority – not supermarket margins and mass output.”

It’s this that drives them, and drives me, the consumer. It’s this that we should be valuing and paying for. There’s a lot more to food than what it says on the tin.

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