The Chinks in the Food Chain

Friday, 2 March 2012

The company responsible for 30% of Australia's tomato supply has gone under, as reported in The Australian.

Being uber-successful was not enough to stop SP Exports going into voluntary administration last week.  And the reason, according to its owner Andrew Philip, was the relentless squeezing, squeezing, squeezing - not of his tomatoes (indeed, his company came up with a new juiceless breed in 2009 that was snapped up by Subway to assist in the relentless fight against soggy sandwiches).  According to its owner, the reason for SP Exports' demise was the relentless squeezing of his profit margins by the big supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths that stock his stuff - the same supermarkets which have 67% market share on all food and alcohol sales in Australia.  SIXTY SEVEN PER CENT.  That's a lot of power concentrated in a couple of businesses whose intent over and above everything is to make profits.  Even if it's at the expense of those who supply them the products they sell.

Anyone noticed the strange conundrum going on in Australia?  Some things getting more expensive (house prices here are some of the most expensive in the world) and yet on the other hand, other things getting cheaper and cheaper.  Like fresh fruit and vegetables from Woolies.

And even though our knee-jerk consumer reaction might be that that's good, it's just not.  From the cradle to the grave we are encouraged to focus primarily on me me me and my pocketbook.  But there is a point where that becomes obscene.  There is a point where the chain will snap.  If we take some time to think about our food supply chain, and the people at the other end of that chain who are actually growing that stuff and need to make a profit from selling it, we realise that simplistic cheapest-price-possible thinking leads to the desert.  In this case, the desert of 30% less tomato supply simply becuase we're all so used to shopping at Coles, and at Woolies, and that we want the cheapest prices, and they are more than happy to give us what we want.

Which is why it's up to us to change that situation, and why some people are.  The internet, God bless its cotton socks, makes it much easier for like-minded people to band together to cut out the greedy middlemenandwomen.  My partner and I have been bypassing the supermarket chains and buying our fruit and veggies by other means.  Partially for these reasons listed above, and partially because I made a decision several years ago that I would only eat organic fruit and vegetables wherever possible to aide my chronic health issues.  We have been getting an organic veggie box from the wonderful CERES (The Centre for Education & Research in Environmental Strategies.  They have a number of pick-up points throughout certain parts of Melbourne where people agree to host delivery of boxes.  We have also used the services of Aussie Farmers Direct, which deliver organic or non-organic fruit and veg boxes of various sizes, along with other items, to your door.  Of course, both of these options are more expensive than if we bought our stuff from those supermarkets.  They are also more sensible and more sustainable, and more soulful.

Has anyone here seen or heard about The People's Supermarket?  A co-operative supermarket venture set up in Camden in London in 2010, its shaky beginnings were viewed by me across the world in Australia when the four-part BBC documentary was shown here a couple of months ago.  One of the things that captivated and frustrated me about it was the amount of food that is regularly thrown out by major food chains in the UK.  And it would be no different here in Australia.  And that makes the testicle squeeze by those chains on the farmers just a little more absurd, and just a little more grotesque.

One of the many things I love about The People's Supermarket is its commitment to reduction of that food wastage.  Another is to fairly-priced goods both for consumers and farmers, a precarious balancing act.  One of the creative ways this balancing act is achieved is that TPS buys the fish John West reject - they buy the potatoes and the capsicums that the supermarkets pass over because they are not perfect.  They might not be perfectly oval potatoes, they might be slightly-more-bizarrely-shaped-than-usual capcisums.  TPS buys and them and sells them at a good price to people who are prepared to believe that they can handle the fact potatoes and capsicums come in all shapes and sizes, and taste the same regardless.


  1. See that's something you'd like about Portland. Commitment to organic farm-to-table fruit and vegetables. We have that happen in a variety of ways, including widespread farmer's markets, grower's outlets, and farm co-ops (where you buy into part of a farm and get a box every week through the season. We also have a huge back (and front) yard gardening and container gardening culture. 

  2. Yes, that is definitely something I would like about Portland.  Fantastic.  Maybe I'll see it one day :)

  3. You're ahead of me with that People's Market, Sue - you keep your finger on the pulse, or the capsicum:) It's not clear whether they're still around, looking at the website. I buy just about all my produce off the local street market, which has probably been going since before Bill the Conk happened along. There are moves afoot now to cut the insane food waste in stores by revising the 'eat by' dates and other things, but then I don't take any notice of them anyway;)

  4. i used to use some of those greengrocer and market direct deliveries when I lived in the city
    oh how i miss them, and any delivery to the on an island does have disadvantages that way

    the stupid thing is, now i live out in the country [a mere 20km from a very large market garden valley which grows all sorts of veggies which get packed up and shipped off to the major supermarkets around the country...including off to central warehouses...before being shipped back to Coles and Woolies in this town ] there are LESS options to buy farm direct or through co-ops

  5. Hey Harry,  I think at this stage The People's Supermarket IS still around, but they are having problems with debtors and creditors.  It's a fraught situation, as the documentary showed, starting up something like this, but I love that the guy who did ... did!  :)

    Yay, I'm happy to hear you buy all your produce from the local street market.  So do you mean the street market is shops, or is it a permanent market? 

  6. That is really bizarre, isn't it, that there isn't a whole lot of farm direct or co-op action round where you live.  Do you have any idea why that could be, Kel?  It seems nuts, doesn't it.

  7. He could be just the inspiration for other folks to do likewise, Sue, and maybe councils might just start seeing the benefit of such enterprise and grant them reduced rates to encourage them... maybe:)

    The market's mainly on a Friday, with a smaller one on Saturday and one or two fruit & veg stalls during the week. It's not all organic, free range, grass fed etc, but there's a good amount that is. There's a superb farmers' market every fortnight in the High St. I can stock up for the week for £15-20, and eat well and healthily.

    It's certainly permanent, in the sense that it's been around in some form or other for about 1000 years;) It's a great community thing too, as it brings folks in from all the villages around. I love the atmosphere in town on a Friday - it buzzes!


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