Time for a supermarket inquiry in New Zealand - May 2013
Other governments are taking action to rein in supermarkets and ensure they treat suppliers fairly, and it’s about time our government did the same.
Britain has a supermarket code of conduct that governs relations between supermarkets and their suppliers, and ensures suppliers are treated fairly.
The Conservative government in Britain has recently appointed a Supermarket Ombudsman to enforce their supermarket code of practice. The Ombudsman has the power to investigate breaches of the code, and to impose hefty fines on supermarkets that are found to have treated suppliers unfairly, or breached the code.
Meanwhile, across the Tasman, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has launched an inquiry into complaints that Australian supermarkets misuse their market power to engage in anti-competitive or unfair trading practices with suppliers.
The Australian Commission is investigating whether their supermarkets use improper practices to force down the prices they pay to suppliers by demanding additional payments over and above those that have already been negotiated with suppliers. They are also investigating whether supermarkets discriminate against suppliers in favour of their own in-house ‘home’ brands, impose more and more ‘rebates’or additional payments on suppliers, and threaten to remove products from supermarket shelves if they don’t comply with their requests.
The Commission has spoken to fifty suppliers, confidentially, and is considering widening its investigation further to look at the underlying imbalance in the bargaining power between supermarkets and their suppliers, and the effect this has on competition in the grocery retail sector.
According to numerous suppliers I have spoken to privately, supermarkets use the exactly same tactics here in New Zealand that are being investigated in Australia.
They routinely discriminate against suppliers in favour of their own in-house ‘home’ brands. They will sometimes change orders that have been agreed to, at the last minute or even retrospectively. Sometimes they will threaten to de-list suppliers if they supply a competitor, and they will often impose additional rebates or additional charges on suppliers.
All these tactics penalise suppliers, especially small suppliers like Purebread. But most suppliers cannot refuse any such requests, or afford to get offside with supermarkets, no matter how unreasonable their demands may seem, for fear they will be frozen out of the grocery retail sector altogether.
Just two supermarket chains, Foodstuffs and Progressives, control around 95% of our grocery retail sector, making it the most concentrated in the world, and this gives them enormous market power as they are, effectively, the gateway to the consumer in New Zealand.
They are able to use their enormous market power to set the rules, and squeeze more and more money out of suppliers, and suppliers have little choice than to follow these rules, no matter how unfair they may appear to be.
Supermarkets claim they are just delivering what consumers want –cheap, reliable, accessible food. Increasingly, they are demanding that suppliers put their products on special, and sell them at a reduced price, to appeal to price-conscious consumers.
But when food is sold at a discount, it is the supplier, not the supermarket, that takes the hit in terms of reduced profits, while supermarkets continue to get the same retail margins. Similarly, when food is promoted, it is normally the supplier, not the supermarket, that has to pay for the cost of promotions.
There is growing concern, too, that supermarkets favour their own home brands like Pams, over other branded products in the supermarket, and this is making it increasingly difficult for small suppliers to compete.
In the United Kingdom, the Grocery Market Action group claims that 3000 growers and farmers have been driven to the wall over the last decade as a result of unfair supermarket practices that are putting more and more pressure on suppliers. Who knows how many have been driven to the wall here.
In Australia, the chief executive of the Council of Small Business claims that the treatment of small businesses by their supermarket duopoly is inhibiting their economy. “It’s very difficult for suppliers to innovate and be productive when supermarkets are screwing them,” he points out.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council is working with the supermarkets there to develop a supermarket code of conduct. We need the same thing here.
There is no oversight or scrutiny over how supermarkets operate in New Zealand, and no rules as to what constitutes fair, or unfair, business practice, so supermarkets can play off suppliers and make up their own rules.
That’s why I believe the time is ripe for us to follow Australia, and develop a supermarket code of conduct, so that there are clear rules as to what constitutes fair and unfair trading practices in the grocery retail sector.
An inquiry into supermarket practices should also be initiated. It could be conducted by the Commerce Commission, and it would need to grant suppliers a guarantee of confidentiality to participate in the inquiry, as the Australian inquiry has, otherwise few would be willing to come forward. And the Commission would need to be prepared to use its powers to gather the information it needs, as the Australian Commerce Commission is doing.
New standard for Health Claims - April 2013
The government has adopted a new food standard that will regulate the health and nutrition claims that food manufacturers make on their food products.
The standard has been more than ten years in the making, and has been welcomed by consumer groups.
At the moment, only one health claim is legally permitted on food labels –namely a claim that folate lowers the risk of neural tube defects in unborn babies.
Yet there are thousands of health and nutrition claims on food – and many of them are ludicrous. Claims that eating margarine will lower cholesterol, for example, or reduce your risks of developing heart disease or osteoporosis.
Manufacturers have been able to get away with making sorts of these claims on food, because the whole area has been unregulated, and the government has simply turned a blind eye to them.
So the new standard is long overdue. But it has its shortcomings, and it won’t help consumers figure out whether food is healthy or not.
Health claims are often presented as if they provide vital information about the health qualities of food. But in reality that are simply marketing tools that food manufacturers use to help them sell their food. They put them on food labels to try to convince health conscious consumers to buy their product.
Some claims are truthful and extremely useful to the consumer. Others are little more than marketing hype.
When the new standard comes into effect in three years time, food manufacturers won't be able to make false or inaccurate health claims on food labels.
The government will pre-approve around 200 claims that food manufacturers can use. If a food manufacturer wants to use a claim outside this list, it will have to provide verification that the claim is actually true.
This sounds reassuring, but I am wondering how it will affect small food producers like Purebread, who claim (correctly) that their because their bread goes through a proper, traditional fermentation process (unlike most commercially produced breads) it is easier to digest and ‘digestion friendly.’ I hope the new regulations won’t prevent Purebread from making this claim once the new regulations take effect.
Another concern is that the standard will still allow food manufacturers to make a so- called ‘nutrition’ claim on an otherwise unhealthy food.
So manufacturers will be able to trumpet all over a packet that a food is ‘fat free’, for example, even if it’s laden with sugar and salt. This will enable manufacturers to distract consumers from a product’s high sugar content, for example, by boasting about its fat- free status—a classic marketing ploy.
Nor will the new standard enable consumers to work out whether food is healthy or unhealthy.
A colour-coded traffic light labelling system would do this, and make it easy for consumers to choose healthy food and avoid unhealthy food.
Research shows that traffic light labels (which would give food a red dot if its high in fat, salt or sugar and a green dot if it’s low in sugar, fat or salt) are simple and easy for consumers to understand.
But the food industry is opposed to traffic light labels because they don’t want to see red dots on their food, as they know it would put consumers off purchasing their food.
So the food industry has persuaded the government to introduce, instead, a voluntary ‘star rating’ system, which will allow food manufacturers to put stars on food, depending on how healthy it is rated to be.
The problem with the star rating system is that it will only apply to healthy food. Manufacturers won’t have to put anything at all to indicate that food is unhealthy and full of sugar and salt. So once again, it will essentially be a tool for the industry to market their food, and won’t help consumers avoid unhealthy food.
So despite all the hype from the government that health claims are a great victory for consumers, in reality they won’t offer much to consumers at all, except that in three years time consumers will know that health and nutrition claims are accurate and not simply marketing hype.
Time for the government to take steps to improve the New Zealand diet - March 2013
The government says it has no intention of taking any action to improve the quality of food on offer in New Zealand, or to encourage people to eat more healthy food.
It won’t reinstate the school food guidelines it got rid of three years ago, to improve the quality of food in schools. Nor will it step in, as other governments are doing, to require food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt and sugar in food. It won’t even support traffic light labelling, so consumers can see at a glance whether food is healthy or not. Nor will it take any other steps to improve food labelling, or get rid of advertisements for
unhealthy food that are targeted at children. The government says what we eat is a private matter, and dismisses any attempt to improve our eating habits as ‘nanny state.’
But behind the scenes, health officials are becoming increasingly worried about the escalating incidence of type two diabetes and other chronic, dietary related diseases in New Zealand, which are largely caused by unhealthy food and inadequate exercise.
Health officials are worried, in particular, that they are losing the battle with type 2 diabetes, and that the costs of treating this disease are sky rocketing out of control.
Already, more than 200.000 New Zealanders have diabetes –mostly type 2 diabetes-- and it’s estimated that a further 100.000 people have diabetes but don’t realise they do.
Diabetes services throughout New Zealand are overloaded and hospital services for people with diabetes are stretched. Every diabetic who is registered with the Ministry of Health gets allocated around $35 thousand a year –and that is sucking up a lot of the health budget.
It’s estimated that a person with diabetes generates 2.5 times the hospital costs of a person without diabetes, and that indirect costs are as much again. Costs are incurred by diagnoses, medication, hospitalisation, kidney damage and other health problems.
The number of people with diabetes is projected to skyrocket by the end of this decade and beyond. And so too are the healthcare costs. At the moment the government is spending more than half a billion a year, or 3% of the health budget, treating people with diabetes, but this is expected to increase to several billion a year by 2021, or 15% of government health funding.
And that’s why Treasury and the Health Ministry are becoming more and more alarmed at the impact this will have on our health system and our economy, unless urgent action is taken to reverse these trends.
Diabetes can lead to other, even more serious health conditions, such as eye disease, foot ulceration, heart and kidney disease.
Almost 2500 New Zealanders are on some form of dialysis, and the number is increasing by around 7% a year –way faster than natural population growth. Each person on dialysis costs the healthy system around $100.000 a year.
Most experts agree that the only way to reduce the numbers of people with type two diabetes, is to encourage people to eat more healthy food.
There is overwhelming international evidence that improving diet and increasing activity can radically reduce the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes.
This isn’t going to happen without government leadership and intervention, because poor eating habits and inactivity have become the norm, and unhealthy food is far more heavily promoted, far more accessible and for the most part cheaper than healthy food. Our children are becoming addicted to high sugar, high salt, highly
processed foods at ever younger ages.
The Ministry of Health acknowledges that poor diet is now the single biggest cause of preventable disease and death in New Zealand, and is fuelling the epidemic of type 2 diabetes and other diet related diseases. According to the Ministry of Health, poor diet accounts for about 30% of all deaths, or about eleven thousand a year—more than alcohol, violence, cigarette smoking, and road deaths combined.
So if we are to stem the pandemic of diabetes and other chronic dietary related diseases, the government will have to take some steps to reduce the amount of high sugar, high salt, highly processed food on sale in New Zealand, and to encourage people to eat more healthily.
If it does nothing, then diabetes and other dietary diseases will inevitably reach pandemic proportions, and the cost of treating them will overwhelm our health system and could eventually bankrupt the nation.
Lessons for us all from the Horsemeat scandal - February 2013
The horsemeat scandal that is engulfing Europe at the moment has some important lessons for all of us.
It’s exposed the complexity and vulnerability of the modern global food chain, and has rocked consumer confidence in food labelling and the security of the modern food chain.
It has also highlighted the importance of buying locally produced food from companies like Purebread that consumers know they can trust.
The scandal began when it was discovered that horsemeat, disguised as beef, was being widely sold in Europe in classic dishes such as lasagne, spaghetti bolognaise and burgers.
Tens of millions of burgers and other frozen products have been withdrawn from sale in supermarkets in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, France and Poland. The British government has admitted it can’t guarantee that meat served in hospitals and schools doesn’t contain horsemeat. And even fast food chains like Burger King have been caught up in the scandal, secretly removing thousands of burgers from sale.
It turns out that a lot of the suspect meat was produced in Romania, slaughtered in Cyprus, processed in France then sold in the United Kingdom—making it extremely difficult to track the origin of food.
This highlights the fact that the longer and more complex the supply chain, the more difficult it is to control.
It also turns out that we import beef products from Europe—including products that have been contaminated –namely, frozen lasagne and shepherds pie and spaghetti Bolognese. So our officials are busily investigating these to see whether any of the meat products we import from Europe could be contaminated with horsemeat.
Another lesson from the European horsemeat scandal is that there needs to be more vigilance and monitoring in the food chain. Apparently 700 trading standards officers in the United Kingdom were laid off in the past few years, making it harder to keep track of the food chain, and avert scandals such as these. They are all wringing their hands about this now, and the government is promising much stricter control of the food chain.
Our government needs to learn this lesson. There is virtually no checking of any imported food at our border –except for a few high-risk foods that are checked to ensure they don’t contain microbial contamination.
But no one is checking to make sure that foods that are imported into New Zealand are not contaminated with illegal pesticides, or other contaminants.
I have also discovered that horsemeat doesn’t have to be declared on a label, if it is used in food. Under our Food Standards code, if the generic word ‘meat’ is used on a label, manufacturers don’t have to specify what is actually in the meat.
…. So any food that is simply described as containing ‘meat’ could contain horsemeat, under our rules. This is a serious loophole that needs to be changed. Manufacturers need to be honest about what is going into food. And consumers certainly want to know what sort of meat they are eating. I’ve also discovered that we can legally import horsemeat into New Zealand from the European Union –so New Zealand foods could contain
imported European horsemeat!
But perhaps the main lesson for consumers from the scandal is that it’s best to buy locally produced food from trusted food companies like Purebread.
And it’s worth paying a little more for high quality, uncontaminated food. As a British MP observed the other day –you can’t have food that is cheap and of high quality. How true!
How do consumers chose healthy food? - November/December 2012
There are more than 20 thousand different products on sale in the average supermarket, so it’s difficult for consumers to choose between all the different brands and varieties on offer.
There are 157 varieties of cereal, for example, and 72 different types of breads in my local supermarket. How does a consumer choose between them?
And if someone wants to eat healthily, how do they work out which foods are healthy, and which are not?
Consumers can’t see or taste or smell food that is in a package or a tin. So they are entirely reliant on food labels to tell them what they are about to purchase.
The problem is that our food labels are full of information we don’t need (like marketing slogans) and devoid of important information, such as where food has come from, whether it contains genetically engineered ingredients, trans fats, palm oil, etc, or how its been produced.
And they offer no real guidance, either, about whether the food is healthy or not, or how it compares with other food in the same category.
Sure, there is a nutrition panel on the back of a label.
But the information in the nutrition panel is incomprehensible to ordinary consumers.
I’ve taken hundreds of consumers on supermarket tours, and I’ve yet to find anyone (other than a dietician) who can understand and interpret a nutrition panel on their own.
There’s no point having information on a food label that consumers can’t understand.
What consumers want on a label is something simple and easy-to understand, so they can see at a glance whether food is healthy or not.
That’s why the UK Food Standards Agency developed a colour-coded system called ‘traffic lights’ labelling, which enables consumers to make a quick comparison between different products, and helps them make healthy choices.
Food that is high in fat, sugar or salt gets a red dot, and food that is low in sugar, fat or salt gets a green dot. If its somewhere in between it gets an orange dot.
Two years ago, an independent panel of experts, appointed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to review our food labels, recommended that we introduce a traffic lights labelling system on food labels, that can translate complex nutrition information into an easy guide for consumers.
This recommendation was enthusiastically welcomed by consumers and public health groups, but opposed by food industry organisations like the Food and Grocery Council.
The industry doesn’t want red –or even orange—dots on food labels, because they know it would put some consumers off purchasing their food.
In the face of industry opposition, the Australian and New Zealand governments did not agree to the panel’s recommendation to introduce traffic light labelling.
Instead, they agreed to develop some sort of ‘front of pack’ labelling system that would help consumers work out whether food is healthy or not.
Both countries set up panels to help them decide which sort of system, and they are due to make a decision in December.
Unfortunately, in the face of on going industry pressure, it’s clear that the two governments are going to kick for touch, and come up with some vague, voluntary system that won’t help consumers chose healthy food.
So in the absence of traffic light labels, how do consumers try to figure out whether food is healthy or not.
Well, there is the Heart Foundation’s green health tick. But that, unfortunately, is flawed.
The Foundation measures the fat and salt content of food, and if it meets certain criteria, a food company can pay to have the heart tick on its food.
The problem is that it doesn’t measure the sugar content of food, so food that is 50% sugar can have the heart tick on it. High sugar food is not, in my book, healthy food, and shouldn’t be marketed as if it is.
So really, there’s no simple way of working out which food is healthy in the supermarket. The best advice therefore is to fall back on the food writer Michael Pollan’s formula –and buy organic, locally produced, fresh, in-season food and avoid highly processed foods with loads of additives.
Pesticide Residues in your (non-organic) Bread? - October 2012
Most people realise that pesticides are routinely sprayed onto conventionally grown food crops. But it’s almost impossible to figure out which pesticides are sprayed onto particular food crops, and how often, because producers don’t have to divulge this sort of information to consumers.
I am sure consumers would be particularly interested to find out what pesticides are sprayed onto staple products like wheat and other grains that are used to make bread.
According to Pesticide Action Network 50 different pesticides can be used on wheat during the growing process. But the only way we can get any idea what pesticides are used on New Zealand wheat and other cereal crops is by analysing the results of a survey the government carries out every 5-7 years, to test what pesticide residues remain in food.
In these surveys, wheat and wheat products have consistently been found to contain high levels of pesticide residues, which is why the Safe Food Campaign includes wheat, and wheat products like bread, in its list of the top twelve foods (‘the dirty dozen’) that have been found to have the highest levels of pesticide residues.
Even so, it’s difficult to work out which pesticides are sprayed onto wheat, or for what purpose. So I was most interested to read a new book by an Australian farmer and journalist, Dianne Loughnan, called Food Shock, which discusses, amongst other things, some of the pesticides that are widely used in New Zealand and Australian agriculture.
According to Ms Loughnan, wheat seed is treated with fungicides before it is even planted, to stop seed or seedling disease, and to make it less vulnerable to pests. And before the seed is sewn, the land is normally sprayed with herbicides, to get rid of any weeds and grass.
Once the wheat emerges from the ground, it is sprayed with plant-growth regulators – synthetic hormone-like substances that strengthen the stalk of the plant and control when the grain will germinate. The seeds are also fertilised with synthetic fertilisers.
While the crop is growing insecticides like parathion methyl, dimethoate and chlorpyrifos are regularly sprayed onto the cropsto control pests.
Once the wheat has been harvested, it is stored in silos and warehouses, and these are fumigated with powerful insecticides like chlorpyrifos-methyl and fenitrothion, which kill any insects that come into contact with it.
Organophosphate insecticides are also used to fumigate ship holds, flour-mills and food processing facilities, and many of these insecticides are also highly toxic to humans. These insecticides are sprayed onto the inner surface of silos and storage bins that are used to store the wheat and the insects are killed when they come in contact with the surface.
Fifty percent of the wheat that is used in New Zealand is imported from Australia, and Dianne Loughman explains that 80% of Australia’s stored cereal crops are fumigated with phosphine, a gas that is highly toxic to humans. Aluminium phosphide tablets are put into the grain where they react with moisture to release the phosphine gas, which kills weevils, mothers, beetles and other grain-eating insects.
It’s also interesting to note that three shipments, or around 79 thousand tonnes of Australian wheat, were refused entry into Taiwan, two years ago, because they contained high levels of a pesticide, fenitrothion, which is banned in Taiwan (but permitted in New Zealand).
In short, then, conventional wheat is treated or sprayed with pesticides from the time it is a seed right through until it has sprouted and harvested, and even after that, when it is being stored and transported.
It’s no wonder that so many pesticide residues have been found in samples of wheat on sale in New Zealand.
Her exposé shows the value of buying organic bread, made from wheat and other grains that are grown and stored without the use of pesticides. Organic wheat is stored in cold storage –or refrigeration—to avoid the use of fumigants like phosphine. (One wonders why all wheat can’t be stored in this way).
Dianne also points out that while wheat has a number of valuable nutrients in it –especially in the wheat germ-- many of these nutrients are destroyed in storage and in processing. When the grain is in storage, it is heat dried at temperatures above 60degrees C, to dry out the damp grain, and this destroys the protein in the grain. She says modern milling process also destroys vitamins, minerals and omega 3 fatty acids, while high speed mills that can generate temperatures of 200 degrees C, kill vitamin E and can make wheatgerm oil rancid. Nutrients are also removed during the milling process which takes off the outside husks that contain the plant’s dietary fibre and B vitamins.
If you want to read Dianne’s book, Food Shock, it is published by Exisle publishing and is on sale in New Zealand.
Digestion from Fermentation - September 2012
Are mechanical bread-making techniques making bread more difficult to digest?
In recent years, more and more people are becoming intolerant to gluten or wheat, and ceoliac disease is on the rise.
According to a recent American study, nearly four times as many people have ceoliac disease, a chronic digestion disorder, than did in the 1950’s. (1)
Some researchers suggest that the increased amount of gluten in grains may be behind the rise in gluten intolerance. (2)
But I can’t help wondering whether the way most commercial breads are made is also contributing to the problem, by making bread more difficult to digest.
Traditionally, bread was left to rise slowly to ferment or rise slowly over time.
This ancient method of allowing bread to rise slowly over time helps to break down the gluten and the yeast in the bread, and the constituents in grain, and this makes it easier for people to digest bread.
But these days, this is no longer the case.
Instead, most loafs are made by machines that mix the dough mechanically at high speeds, and this dramatically reduces the amount of time needed to make bread.
Unfortunately, there isn’t time for the gluten and starches in dough to be properly broken down when bread is made using these high-speed baking techniques (3) and I wonder whether this may be contributing to the number of people who struggle to digest bread properly.
It’s interesting that until the 1950’s ceoliac disease was extremely rare. But from the 1960’s it began to increase sharply. It’s around that time that the new mechanical methods of bread-making, called the Chorleywood Bread process or ‘no time’ method, were introduced in the United Kingdom, and were taken up by other countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand. (4)
Certainly, some people who react to mechanically produced bread, claim they are able to eat bread that has been allowed to ferment naturally.(5)
Another problem with mechanically baked bread is that large amounts of yeast are often used to make the dough rise quickly. A variety of food additives and enzymes, and ingredients like hardened fat, are normally added as well to help the dough rise quickly and hold the mixture together. (6)
All of these new ingredients may make the bread more difficult to digest.
Under our labelling laws, however, some of these additives and ingredients don’t have to be declared on a label, so it’s hard to work out what has been added to bread.
Fortunately, there are still some bakers who bake bread the traditional way, without additives, and leave it to ferment naturally.
This is obviously a more labour intensive and expensive process, but some bakers believe, as I do, that bread made using traditional techniques is tastier, more nutritious and more digestible.
So next time you go to buy a loaf of bread, see whether it contains additives, and ask whether it has been allowed to ferment naturally.
(1) Ceoliac Disease on the Rise, Barbara Toman, Discovery’s Edge, Mayo Clinic Online Research magazine, July 2010
(3) Against the Grain, Katherine Czapp, Wise Traditions in Food Saving and Haling Arts, Weston Price, Summer 2006: The Shocking Truth About Bread, Andrew Whitley, The Independent, 24 August, 2006: Bread Matters, Andrew Whitley, Fourth Estate Publishers, 2006
(4) The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread, Rose Prince, 28 June 2011 Does Sliced Bread Make You Feel Bloated, Bee Wilson, The Telegraph, 19 June 2011
(5) Our Daily Bread, Katherine Czapp, The Weston Price Foundation, http://westonaprice.org. Sourdough Bread Made from Wheat and Nontoxic Flours and Started with Selected Lactobacilli is Tolerated in Celiac Sprue Patients, Applied and Environmental Microbiology 70, no 2 (2004): 1088-96
(6) Bread Matters, Andrew Whitley, Fourth Estate Publishers, 2006
Supermarket Price Wars are Bad News for Consumers and Food Producers - August 2012
There’s a cut-throat price war going on in Australia between their three main supermarket chains, especially Coles and Woolworths.
We haven’t seen a similar price war break out here yet, but it could start at any time.
The Australian supermarket price war started when the two main supermarket chains lowered the price of their home brand milk to one dollar a litre. Then they lowered the price of home brand bread to one dollar a loaf! And now they are offering 50% off selected vegetables and many other products on sale in supermarkets.
What happens is that when one supermarket slashes prices of a product, the other supermarket quickly follows suit. This is called ‘price matching.’
This sounds great for consumers, and its obviously good in the short term for hip pockets.
But in the long term these price wars are bad news for consumers as well as suppliers. They undermine the long-term viability and sustainability of growers and food manufacturers –especially small growers and businesses --and end up reducing consumer choice, as many small producers and suppliers are driven out of business, along with all the food they produce.
And when local growers and food producers are driven to the wall, the supermarkets normally turn to overseas markets to source cheaper products and ingredients. A large percentage of the cheap supermarket home brand products are made from imported produce. So the price wars hurt local production and increase the amount of food imports.
In Australia, the bread and milk wars have been disastrous for many small producers and bakers.
When the Coles supermarket chain slashed its home brand milk to $1, the sales of other milk brands fell by around 25% as consumers filled their shopping trolleys with cheap home brand milk. Many commentators say the Australian milk wars have been ruinous for many dairy farmers and milk producers. Sales of home brand milk are now around 50-60% of all milk sold in Australia and some predict it could jump to 75% as a result of the price wars.
The same thing happened with bread. When Coles started selling bread at $1 a loaf, other bakers simply couldn’t compete. The large food manufacturer Goodman Fielder threatened not to deliver daily to supermarkets because it simply couldn’t match the $1 price of home brand bread.
The reality is that no one can bake a decent loaf of bread for $1 –or even $1.50c. As local bakers pointed out, at that price you are not even covering the cost of ingredients.
So what the supermarkets are doing is selling bread at below the cost of production, as a way of luring customers into their supermarkets and creating the impression that food in their supermarkets was cheaper than their competitors.
But having slashed the price on staples like milk and bread to lure customers into the supermarket, they then quietly increase the price of a whole swathe of other products in the supermarket to recoup the price cuts on bread and milk.
So overall, prices do not go down, despite all the hype about cheap milk and bread.
Australian consumer organisations and politicians are becoming increasingly concerned at the effect the supermarket price wars are having on their food industry and their local growers.
Angela Paladine, Professor of Marketing at the University of Melbourne has warned that the price wars will squeeze out marginal players and change the composition of the entire market. “Smaller brands will exit the market as a result of the inability to make a profit against home brand labels,’ which will result in less competition and even more power for supermarkets.
Some politicians are calling for the Australian Commerce Commission to investigate the bread pricing wars in Australia, and their effect on the market. Others are calling for a Supermarket Code of Conduct to be developed, to set fair rules for suppliers, and for a Supermarket Ombudsman to be appointed.
Let’s hope these vicious price wars don’t break out in New Zealand any time soon, for their long-term effect will be to undermine local growers and our local food industry. Small suppliers, such as Purebread, who make organic, properly fermented bread in a sustainable way, could not possibly compete against that sort of unsustainable price gouging.
So don’t be fooled by the short-term lure of supermarket discounting, In the long term its more important that we support local food producers like Purebread, and ensure we have an on going supply of safe, healthy, sustainable food to eat.
Folic Acid in Your Bread? - July 2012
I am not sure how many readers have been following the debate about whether to mandatorily fortify almost all bread sold in New Zealand with folic acid from September of this year.
If you haven’t, let me give you a bit of background.
The previous Labour government agreed, in 2008, to mandatorily fortify all bread with folic acid, as a public health measure to reduce the number of babies born with neural tube defects (as there is evidence that folate protects against neural tube defects).
The Green party managed to persuade the government to exempt all organic bread from this requirement, because it is not permitted, under the organic standard, to add synthetic additives to organic food.
We pointed out that requiring organic bakers to add folic acid to organic bread would be a breach of the organic standard, because folic acid is a synthetic compound which does not occur naturally in food.
We also pointed out that folate occurs naturally in wholemeal and whole grain bread, so there was no need to fortify it. Even in countries like the USA, where bread is mandatorily fortified, wholemeal bread is exempt.
The government went ahead with its plans, however, and only permitted organic breads, unleavened breads, pizza bases and breadcrumbs to be exempt from the new standard.
But when National became the government in 2009, it put the mandatory fortification standard on hold. Consumers had made it clear in surveys that they did not favour mandatory fortification of almost all bread, and new research was published which suggested that high doses of folic acid could stimulate pre-cancerous cells to grow, and increase the risk of colon and prostate cancer.
There were calls to put the mandatory fortification plans on hold while more research was done on the connection between high levels of folic acid and cancer. In the meantime the Bakers Association agreed to voluntarily fortify some bread,and about 45 varieties of conventional, non-organic bread are now fortified,
which amounts to about 15% of the bread sold in New Zealand.
Now, however, the government seems to have decided to proceed with mandatory fortification of bread, and has been quietly consulting the public about its plans. I say quietly because no one I know seems to be aware that this consultation has been taking place.
I have read the research about the potential risks of folic acid, by people like Professor David Smith of Oxford University, and it is concerning.
He points out that folic acid is poorly metabolised by humans, which means that a proportion of the population will have unmetabolised folic acid in their blood.
This is a concern because while folate can protect neural tube defects, high levels of folic acid can stimulate pre-cancerous cells to grow.
In my view, if the government is to require the addition of a synthetic additive to almost every loaf of bread sold in New Zealand, it would need to be absolutely confident that it would be effective, that nobody would get too high a dose of folic acid, that there would not be any harmful side effects in the long-term, and that there is no better way of achieving the desired outcome.
So far, the evidence suggests that the mandatory fortification of bread will result in some sectors of the population receiving too high a dose; that it could have harmful side effects in the long term on some sections of the population, and may even expose some groups to an increased risk of cancer.
By contrast, voluntary fortification appears to be proceeding well, and New Zealand women’s folate blood levels are about the same as the levels in the USA, where there is mandatory fortification of folate in bread.
The government will decide in the next month whether to continue with voluntary fortification, or require the mandatory fortification of most breads.
If it does proceed with mandatory fortification, at least those of us who buy organic bread wont be exposed to folic acid in our bread. Instead, our bread will have naturally occurring folate in it—a far preferable alternative, in my view.
We should take a moment to thank all those organic bakers, like Purebread, who ensure we have the choice of eating organic bread.
The hidden cost of cheap food - June 2012
There’s huge pressure on manufacturers to provide cheap food.
Supermarkets are constantly putting pressure on suppliers to lower the cost of food. And more and more hard-up consumers are seeking out the cheapest food they can buy in a supermarket.
The problem is that cheap food comes at a price. Manufacturers use all sorts of industrial techniques, and suspect ingredients, to cut production costs, and often the result is unhealthy food that will undermine, rather than enhance, the health of consumers.
The reason most bakers don’t leave their bread to rise anymore, is to cut production costs. Instead of allowing bread to ferment naturally, they use a variety of industrial techniques to make it rise artificially, and this makes the bread cheaper.
Unfortunately it also makes bread more difficult to digest. And that’s why its worth paying more for bread that has been baked the traditional way and left to rise naturally –as Purebread is.
There are plenty of other examples in the supermarket –including the recent revelation that milk is often diluted with a substance called ‘permeate’—a watery, greenish substance which is a by-product of milk processing. [Read More on Permeate and labelling laws]
Some milk producers claim they add permeate to milk to standardise the levels of fat and protein in milk. But everyone knows the real reason is because it reduces the cost of milk per litre, and enables milk to be sold more cheaply.
Many people believe the practice of adding permeate to milk has become more widespread as a result of the supermarket ‘milk wars’ in Australia, which have put intense pressure on milk producers to reduce the cost of milk.
Adding up to 16% of a permeate certainly helps to reduce the cost –and gets rid of a waste product at the same time.
Arguably, there is nothing wrong with adding permeate to milk. Under our food labelling laws, producers are legally allowed to add unspecified ‘milk products’ to milk—even when they constitute about 16% of milk!
The problem is that the industry has been deliberately keeping the practice secret, and so consumers had no idea they were buying adulterated milk.
Under our woefully inadequate labelling laws, there is no requirement that adulterated substances like permeate be declared on a label.
But they most certainly should be. Most consumers believe, when they buy milk, that it has come straight from the cow—and been processed and homogenised along the way.
They certainly don’t expect it to be diluted with a milk waste product. So it’s a deceptive practice, and arguably breaches the Fair Trading laws.
If producers are going to dilute milk with a milk waste product, they should be required to declare it on a label. Some consumers may not care about anything other than the cost of milk, but many consumers would seek to avoid milk that had been diluted with permeate.
Another example of an ingredient that is added to food to make it cheaper, is the widespread use of hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oils which have had hydrogen pumped through them, are cheaper than pure oils, and give foods a longer shelf life.
Unfortunately, they also contain trans fats which increase people’s risk of heart disease.
There is no requirement, under our labelling laws, to declare trans fats on label, despite the fact that they are detrimental to our health.
And manufacturers seek to hide the fact that they are using trans fats and hydrogenated oil by using a variety of labels –such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Consumers should be aware that anything that contains hydrogenated oils will also contain trans fats, and should be avoided at all cost.
Consumers should also be aware that when they seek out cheap food, it comes at a cost –and often that cost is their health and well-being.
When consumers pay more and purchase whole organic foods, on the other hand, they can be certain they are buying healthy food.
I always argue that buying healthy food is a form of health insurance –a way of keeping yourself well in the short and long term.
Additives to Avoid in Food - May 2012
I've taken many tours around supermarkets, showing consumers how to read food labels; how to find hidden ingredients in food, and how to avoid some of the most suspect ingredients and additives that are found in food.
When I am asked if there is one ingredient, above all others, that I would recommend consumers avoid, I usually answer sodium nitrite, a preservative that is used in virtually all processed meat, including almost all bacon.
It is added to meat to preserve it, and reduce the risk of botulism, but also to make meat look fresh and pink, rather than grey. Without it bacon would look a completely different, dull grey colour.
Sodium or potassium nitrate, or nitrite, sounds harmless enough on a label. In fact it sounds as if it’s just a form of salt that is used as a preservative.
Unfortunately, its anything but harmless. In fact it’s one of the most dangerous additives in the food supply. When it combines with saliva and the digestive enzymes in the stomach, it creates chemicals caused nitrosamines that are powerful carcinogens.
That’s why eating a lot of processed meat is one of the main risk factors for developing cancer. [Read the full article here]
You might ask why such a dangerous additive is allowed in our food supply at all. Governments argue that the benefits of using it to preserve meat and prevent botulism outweigh the risks of contributing to cancer.
But surely if governments are going to allow an additive that contributes to cancer in the food supply, they should at the very least require warning labels on all foods that contain the additive, alerting consumers to the risk of nitrates.
This is especially the case with sodium nitrate, as it is found in hundreds of products, including virtually all packaged meats. And often it is not even identified by its name, but simply by the number 249, 250, 251 or 252.
There are other additives in the food supply that are also suspected of causing cancer.
BHA –Butylated hydroxyl-anisole, is another widely used preservative that is suspected of causing cancer. It can trigger hyperactivity and asthma, and raise blood cholesterol levels, and is toxic to the liver and kidneys. It is linked to cancer in test animals and is banned in various countries including Japan, France, Austria and Germany.
It is often just identified by the number 320.
The United States Department of Health has stated that it could ‘reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen on the basis of experimental findings on animals.’
So what’s it doing in our food supply—and again, without any warning label?
Another widely used, potentially cancer-causing additive is Aspartame (951), an artificial sweetener used in most sugar free soft drinks, and in many other products.
It can cause headaches, blurred vision, rashes, hyperactivity, and central nervous system disorders. It has been found to cause bladder cancer and brain tumours in animal studies. So why is there no requirement for a warning label about Aspartame?
Coca Cola and Pepsi were forced to reformulate their drinks recently, when the state of California requested them to put a warning label on their products stating that their drinks may cause cancer.
The reason for the warning label was yet another ingredient that is used in Coke and Pepsi—an innocent sounding additive called ‘caramel colouring.’
Caramel colouring sounds as if it’s made by melting sugar in a saucepan. But in fact some caramel colourings are made with ammonia, or an ammonia-sulfite process, and produce carcinogens, which is why the State of California added the caramel additive (known as 4-MI) to its list of carcinogens in 2011.
It then told Coke and Pepsi that they had to place carcinogen warning labels on their bottles of Coke and Pepsi.
To avoid this, the two companies quickly reformulated their products.
That’s what would happen if governments pushed food companies to put warning labels on other additives that are suspected of being carcinogenic. It would create an immediate incentive for companies to reformulate their products.
The good news for consumers is that these sorts of hazardous additives can be avoided, if consumers choose organic and whole foods. Organic foods do not use synthetic additives like nitrates, preservatives, colourings, artificial sweeteners, bleaching agents, four improvers or genetically engineered ingredients.
We are fortunate that there are organic food producers who produce safe, additive free food, and we should support these producers wherever we can, for health and environmental reasons.
The importance of eating naturally fermented bread - April 2012
I suspect most people, when they buy bread, don’t give too much thought as to how it’s made.
As long as it looks healthy and tastes good, they will buy it.
But there’s an important aspect in the way bread is made that consumers should consider when they buy bread.
And that is whether the bread has been left to ferment, or rise, naturally, or whether it’s been baked mechanically at high speeds, and has not been left to ferment.
This important aspect of the baking process may determine whether you can easily digest the bread you buy or not.
For millennia, bread has been left to rise or ferment naturally, over many hours.
The process of fermentation helps to break down the gluten and yeast in bread, and the constituents in grain, and this makes it easier for people to digest bread.
But these days hardly any bread-makers leave their bread to ferment naturally anymore.
Instead, they use recently introduced mechanical techniques, which dramatically reduce the time it takes to make bread, and the cost of making bread.
The problem is that these high-speed techniques don’t allow the gluten and starches in the dough to be properly broken down, and this makes the bread harder to digest.
Some people believe the high-speed, mechanical bread-making techniques that are used in most modern bakeries, are contributing to the rise in gluten allergies.
Another problem with mechanically made bread is that twice the amount of yeast is often used to make the dough rise quickly, along with a variety of additives and enzymes, and ingredients like hardened fat, which are often used to help make the dough rise quickly and hold the mixture together.
All of these ingredients may make the bread more difficult to digest.
So we are lucky that there are still a few bakers left, like Purebread, that bake their loaves the traditional way, and leave the dough to ferment naturally for around three hours before they bake the bread.
It would be great if consumers could find out by reading a label whether bread has been traditionally fermented or not, but in the absence of any such requirement, consumers have to find out from bakers whether or not they leave bread to ferment.
Another great thing about Purebread is that it’s organic, so there are not residues of pesticides left in the wheat. This is important when you consider that recent government surveys have found high levels of pesticide residues in conventional bread. That’s probably because pesticides are used not only to produce the wheat that is used in conventional bread, but also after the wheat has been picked and is being stored in grain silos.
By contrast, organic wheat is stored in cold storage, and no chemical pesticides are used to grow the grain or in storing it afterwards.
So we are lucky to have organic bakers in New Zealand.