From Maple Street Coop News, June/July 2005 issue
Published by Maple Street Co-op, 37 Maple Street, Maleny Qld 4552
Tel 5494 2088, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Superpowers of the Supermarkets
by Lori Sturtz
The future of our health, freedom and even livelihood is being threatened by the relentless power of supermarkets. According to "The Weekly Times" (TWT) in Victoria (13 and 20 April), Woolworths and Coles are creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among Australian farmers.
These farmers are struggling to survive on declining prices due to the flood of imported foods. Locally grown produce is being usurped by imported food. Many growers are getting prices well below the cost of production and consumers are paying more while the supermarkets reap huge profits. Peter Hunt and Kate Adamson of TWT say that many fresh produce suppliers have refused to speak publicly for fear of being sent on a "holiday" (jargon for supermarkets cancelling orders at short notice for a period of time).
Many areas of Australia have fewer farmers now than they did than 100 years ago, and small rural towns are suffering if not disappearing. Dairy farmers have been leaving the industry since deregulation, but many of those who have stayed in business and diversified have been finding it tough dealing with the supermarket duopolists. Moreover, many industrialised nations have to resort to subsidising farmers to keep their own agricultural sectors from collapsing.
TWT reports that Woolies and Coles have margins of 2000 per cent or more on some unprocessed foods, and that many farmers are afraid to speak out for fear of losing contracts. Farmers, suppliers and processors have to deal with these two supermarkets because they control 75-80% of the grocery trade. These fixed-price contracts lock the farmers into agreements weighted in the supermarket giants' favour. One farmer who spoke about low prices to TWT was told by a supermarket not to speak to the media again.
The effect of "house brands"
A wide range of imported produce is being used in supermarket house brands, while many Australian products are being bumped off the shelves. These cheaper imports mean much bigger profits for the duopolists because production and labour costs are so much cheaper in these countries. Australian produce and products are more expensive because production costs are higher due to good wages and stricter regulations. Imported foods are eroding the profits and market share of local growers as well as processors like Simplot and McCain. Simplot has had to tell Tasmanian pea farmers that they must reduce their supply volume by 25 per cent due to imports and a bumper pea season. The strong Australian dollar has given the supermarkets greater buying power for imports, according to Simplot's managing director, Terry O'Brien.
House brands could destroy variety and choice in supermarkets, especially given that Coles intends to increase house brand sales from 13 to 30 per cent by 2007. Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett told the share market that its house brand continues to be the biggest-selling grocery brand in Australia. As the market share of these house brands increases, it will be the farmers who suffer. Supermarkets play suppliers against one another to get the best deal. Companies who once sold their own brands are now forced to process and package supermarket brands.
There is also a discrepancy between the strict practices and tests that are imposed on local producers and the often non-existent testing and controls put on farming practices in developing countries. Also, many chemicals (such as DDT and other organochlorines) which have been banned here are used on crops in these other countries. According to Channel 7's Today Tonight (19 May 2005), the government tests Australian produce for 61 chemicals. However, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service tests imported produce for just 25 chemicals, and only five per cent of shipping containers coming into the country are checked. Today Tonight obtained a confidential report that revealed that 16 out of 50 dried foods had tested positive for chemical residues such as DDT, dieldren and other cancer-causing pesticides.
Concerns over labelling and irradiation
Recently, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) sought the removal of compulsory labelling on unpackaged foods (fruit, vegetables, seafood, etc.) that identifies the country of origin, and called for public submissions last February (see Proposal P272 at http://www.foodstandards.gov.au). According to the food authority, these labels discriminate against "free trade" under World Trade Organization rules.
If the labelling regulations are changed, consumers will no longer be able to check the labels and make an informed decision about the food they are buying. Instead, they will have to chase down supermarket employees and ask them where the food is from (good luck: your chances of winning at Lotto are probably better!).
Treatments for preservation and disinfection also need to be considered when buying foods from the supermarket chains. "Modified atmosphere processing" and "active packaging" are being used to extend shelf life for "fresh foods" such as lettuce and meat. They are flushed with antimicrobial gases, washed in chlorine or wrapped in packages lined with chemicals such as tertiary-butylhydroquinone and butylated hydroxyanisole, some of which are suspected carcinogens ("Observer Food Monthly", London, May 2004).
Irradiation is another process that is being used to prolong the life of foods as well as to "debug" them. We need to be on the lookout for loopholes in regulations that might allow unlabelled, irradiated foods onto Australian supermarket shelves. Here, FSANZ allows for the irradiation of herbs, spices, herbal teas and various tropical fruits. Some irradiated foods are exposed to the equivalent of up to a billion chest X-rays, and there are well-documented health problems associated with irradiation. Lab animals fed these foods have been found to have mutations, tumours, organ damage, stillbirths, premature death and stunted growth. Chemicals called 2-ACBs, formed from irradiation, have been linked to colon cancer in rats and genetic damage in human cells.
At Maple Street Co-op, our priority is local organic food first and then non-local organic before non-organic. We believe that organic is the most important criterion because the pesticides and herbicides in non-organic food cause so much damage and are not sustainable in the environment. We do not sell genetically modified or irradiated foods (and these are not allowed under any organic labelling regime). The only imported fresh foods that we buy are organic medjool dates, because the Australian ones are not organic at this time. Sometimes we may have organic kiwi fruit from New Zealand when we cannot get supplies from Australia.
So the next time you happen to bite into a supermarket apple, think about where it came from and what may have been done to it to keep it looking so good (remember Snow White and the poisoned apple?). We are the ones who ultimately control the fate of Australian farms and growers as we determine what foods we want to eat. When we choose organic, we are choosing a healthy and sustainable future for generations to come. We may even persuade more farmers to go organic.
The anti-Woolworths protest revs up
It's not surprising that so many Maple Street Co-op members support the stand to save Maleny from a Woolworths supermarket. We, like the campaigners at large, are from diverse backgrounds and are very concerned about the possible deleterious economic, social and environmental consequences from this corporate giant pushing its way into Maleny. We do not want our town ruined by a corporation that primarily cares about profits, and we are supportive of local producers who don't stand to win by Woolies' setting up shop.
The protest gets stronger and more widely known all the time, and by keeping up the campaign we send a message to supermarket giants like Woolworths and Coles that they're not welcome here--and we also give other towns and suburbs some inspiration to make their own stand.
From Maple Street Co-op News,
June/July 2005 issue
Published by Maple Street Co-op,
37 Maple Street, Maleny, Qld 4552,
tel 07 5494 2088, email email@example.com
Back to Main Maple Street Co-op Index Page