Tuesday’s Top 5 – Things I like to rant about

Oh this list could be long…but instead of going on forever I will try and stay specific in my ranting.  These are the food related issues I personally find most irritating.  I do however, reserve the right to be irritated by entirely different things tomorrow!

1.  Food Miles – Now I am not a food mile zealot by any means, I actually believe that some food miles are good and even appropriate.  I’m partial to Ethiopian coffee for instance and as long as its fair trade then I have no problem with buying it as I think the export income it earns Ethiopia is probably more important than the food miles it generates.  Ditto Sri Lankan tea, spices from India etc.  What I do have a problem with is products like Water Crackers (ingredients: flour, salt, water, vegetable oil) being made in China and then shipped to Australia.  Has Australia suddenly become deficient in one of these items?  We have wheat silos that are overflowing (largely due to inadequate rolling stock on the railway lines).  We produce salt.  The drought has finished for now so it can’t be the water.  So perhaps its the vegetable oil, not enough palm oil perhaps….. ???  I ask you –  How can it possibly be a good use of the worlds resources to ship water crackers from China to Australia?

2. Food Labelling: –   Australia has some very odd food labelling laws, which I think at best confuse consumers and at worst are pretty misleading.   I’ll give you an example: for something to be labelled “Made in Australia” the product needs to be substantially transformed here and  50% of the cost of the product has to be incurred here and that includes the packaging.  What this means in reality is that you could import orange concentrate from overseas, substantially transform it by adding some water to it and then provided that process and the packaging cost more than the concentrate you can label it Made in Australia, despite that fact that its major component – the oranges, were grown elsewhere.  Equally confusing are ingredients lists, often an ingredient only has to be listed if they reach a certain proportion of the total.  For instance a product only has to mention it has genetically modified ingredients if they are more than 1% of its contents.  Finally and for me most frustratingly ingredients are not always what they seem.  For instance palm oil is able to be labelled as vegetable oil.  Palm oil production is the single biggest threat to South East Asian rainforests, and with them the Orang U Tan.  Zoo’s Victoria is just one organisation which is campaigning for distinct labelling of palm oil to allow consumers to make informed decisions.  Shamefully both the Labour Party and the Coalition opposed a recent private members bill designed to ensure that Palm oil be listed separately as an ingredient on food labelling.  Why companies are allowed to get away with anything other than completely transparent labelling I find baffling….Well it would be baffling if there weren’t such large amounts of money at stake….

 3. Supermarket duopoly – In Australia we have two main supermarket chains, Coles & Woolworths, who essentially operate a duopoly.  What this means is they have huge buying power and control over food retailing.  This power is worrying, primarily for producers but also for consumers.  At the moment Coles is in the process of offering large discounts on a range of ‘everyday’ items, specifically milk and fruit & veg.  They present this as a great opportunity for their suppliers to sell more and for the consumer to buy at reduced prices.  What this does is put huge pressure on both those producers who don’t supply Coles and the independent retailers they supply.  To my mind Coles (and I don’t imagine Woolworths is any different) seems intent on driving the independents out of business, ensuring more people shop with them and forcing more producers to have to deal with them (on Coles’ terms) or go out of business.  After living in the UK where many high streets don’t have a green grocer, or a butcher, or a fishmonger, or even a baker, I truly value ours and I really don’t want to see a time where I have to shop solely at supermarkets because the other options have all gone out of business.

4. BPA- Why are food manufacturers still allowed to use BPA in their packaging?  Its potential health effects are pretty well documented and yet it is still used.  Why?  I’ll ask again Why?

5. Cage Eggs – In Europe there are many mainstream retailers who do not stock eggs from caged hens, or use them in their products.  Many British supermarkets sell only free range eggs, yet in Australia the majority of eggs still seem to be caged.  Corn fed caged eggs, Barn Fresh Caged Eggs, No Frills Caged Eggs, Omega 3 Caged Eggs, Environmental Caged Eggs and so it goes on, all the most ridiculous names imaginable for what is a fairly reprehensible product.    Interestingly I heard recently that Victoria is suffering from something of an egg glut because so many people are choosing to keep chickens in their gardens…perhaps the Egg Board might like consider why…..

I could add a myriad of other issues to this list – the seemingly unfettered use of large amounts of salt, sugar and fat in processed foods being a good one, not to mention the marketing of ‘pretend’ health foods, but if I started I probably couldn’t stop.  Instead I’ll leave it up to you to add your own personal bug bears to my list, if you have any of course.  Alternatively you could head over to The New Goodlife for a more uplifting experience – her Top 5 Guilty Food Pleasures.

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27 Responses to Tuesday’s Top 5 – Things I like to rant about

  1. Definitely more thought provoking than my list this week. I agree with everything you’ve said. The food miles thing I approach the same way. I like to buy from where something is appropriately grown (like your Ethiopian coffee), rice I think is not suited to be grown in Australia for example.

    Food labelling – what a disaster our current regulations are on so many levels. I used to spend hours doing my shopping trying to work out what was best from an eco point of view. Not to mention the ingredients. Then I bought the ethical shopping guide and try to seek out the brands recommended in that one where I can.

    Coles/Woolie duopoly is a definite bugbear of mine. And I too would hate to see the independent green grocer and butcher etc. I only ever buy pantry items from them, the rest I buy from independent stores.

    BPA – I should probably pay more attention to this one. I do make sure the girls drink bottles and cups etc are BPA free, but I haven’t got much further than that in gutting out BPA. Actually I’d love to go plastic-free completely, but the idea is so over whelming I don’t really know where to start.

    Cage Eggs – why, oh why. I do thinks it’s funny about the egg glut though, now that’s the way to vote with your dollar. I never buy caged eggs, but really we need manufacturers, restaurants etc to also demand cage-free eggs (or perhaps it’s consumers who have to demand it of manufacturers first). I also worry about the ethics of buying pork in Australia.

    I started buying some of my basics (especially milk) fro Aussie Farmers a while ago, because as least I KNOW everything they sell is from Aussie producers and they pay a fair price to producers. Coming from a farming background (not my parents, but my grandparents and uncle) it makes me so furious what the two big supermarkets are doing to the agricultural industry in Australia. I just couldn’t support that.

    Good on you for getting all this out!

    • Liz says:

      I absolutely agree with you on rice and never buy Australian grown, but perhaps that is fraught too – who knows. the more I think about it the more I wonder if there is such a thing as an ethical food, if you find some then please let me know…..I agree with you about not buying plastic being quite overwhelming – it was my intention that the kids wouldn’t have plastic toys – ha ha – that lasted about 2 weeks. It is difficult to walk round our house now without stepping on some piece of plastic crap or another. I try not to think about the pork thing – too hard, for now…..

  2. L says:

    Love the list Liz. I’m too tired to comment properly tonight, but I’ll be back to comment properly tomorrow.

  3. I watched a TV programme this weekend that was discussing food labelling and what it actually means or even doesn’t mean. Quite an eye opener.

    By the way re the competition on my blog – send me your answers via email if you can’t get the form working

  4. Good for you Liz! I just want more people to be aware of what is going on around them. I would like to see more young people and families buying at Farmer’s markets at the weekends so they and children can also be more in touch where their food comes from.

    Mind you, we had an American couple visiting The Farmer’s market at Usk and when they asked where the milk came from for a local cheese and was told ‘from Wales’ there was a short pause before the lady commented that she had never realised it was possible to milk whales…

  5. leduesorelle says:

    Thanks for bringing up these issues, Liz! On food labeling, what gets me going is the lack of (at least here in the U.S.) labeling in regards to GMO food. As for BPA, a couple of years ago I went through my cupboard and contacted every food producer that I could to find out if there was BPA in the lining of their cans — the good news was that I found a couple of companies committed to spending extra for BPA-free cans, the bad news is the lids used for home canning still contain BPA…

    • Liz says:

      I should really do that – ie ring the producers regarding BPA as I imagine the more people who do the more pressure it puts on them to change their packaging materials. Good for you! Shame about the canning lids though.

  6. Mark Willis says:

    I think there are lots of people in our blogging community who would have similar feelings to you about the issues on your list. I’m particularly concerned about the domination of our food supply by the supermarkets, who as you say seem intent on eliminating the small independents. I’m fortunate that we have a number of good small shops nearby, and I am trying hard to support them.

    • Liz says:

      I got good at boycotting the supermarkets in the UK – I read ‘Shopped’ and just stopped going – I used Abel & Cole, went to the farmers markets and used the Asian grocers next to my work but I was fortunate in both having sufficient disposable income to shop at Abel & Cole and also was working in a place with a plethora of Asian grocers next door. If I had neither it woudl be incredibly hard to avoid supermarkets I think and I do find that very sad.

  7. Leanne says:

    I read your list and I agree with everything, though I didn’t know about the food labelling. Can I also I am not surprised. I have stopped thinking out government has our interests at heart, I know they are there for someone, but it isn’t the people who vote for them.

    We are really lucky where we are, I rarely have to shop at the two big ones, and I try very hard to never go to Woolworths. We have a massive supermarket called Leo’s here, it is fantastic. I am always surprised at busy it is and I guess the people around here believe it should be supported. I hate fruit and veggies in Coles or Woolworths, they are second rate, so they can drop their prices, and if people are going to go for second rate, what can you do. Leo’s have beautiful fruit and veggies. Leo’s cost more, but sometimes you have to be prepared for that.

    The eggs, well I always go for free range and wouldn’t consider eggs from any other source.

    Great post, makes everyone think about what they are doing.

    • Liz says:

      Thanks Leanne, I try and avoid the supermarkets where I can too but I have to say sometimes taking a 2 year old to Preston market, or indeed dragging him to multiple places around Coburg is just too exhausting a prospect. In my childless days I woudl happily boycott them completely.

      • Leanne says:

        I haven’t been to Preston market for a long time. I should go, I really like the Asian grocery store there.
        I don’t avoid the supermarket, Leo’s is as big as the other supermarkets and you can get everything there you need, it is a gourmet supermarket. I wouldn’t recommend it for you, I only mean that it would be too far to travel for you, it’s in Heidelberg.
        Might see you at Preston one day.

  8. Tracey says:

    Great list!
    re: food miles and food labelling –
    I’ve found OnlyOz.com.au to be an excellent resource, both for knowing what actually *is* Australian owned and Australian made (they also try to identify and spell out the shades of grey in between) and for purchasing the products, many of which are not stocked by the local IGA etc. OnlyOz is physically located in QLD, so there are certainly product-miles there, but then again, the products on the shelf at the local supermarket didn’t spring into existence there, they were transported from elsewhere. So I compromise by doing infrequent bulk shops with Only Oz.

    Re: the duopoly –
    I’m lucky to have access to produce markets, including farmers markets, and IGA supermarkets, so I stopped doing business with Coles and Woolies quite a while back – *except* for Dan Murphies (owned by Woolies). This year one goal is to stop buying wine from Dans. One thing I’ll be looking into is Rewine – they sell at the Vic market and other Melbourne markets. Basically a cleanskin setup where you can purchase wine from them and then bring back the empties for refiling at a discount. I keep meaning to taste their wines during the market shop, but have a bit of trouble facing booze at 8.30 am!

    Re: BPA –
    We were inspired to get into canning this year even though we consume relatively little canned food, because of a Choice study that found BPA in the brand of canned tomatoes we were buying. There is still some concern about BPA in the lids, but at least we’ll have reduced our exposure! I hope to get some re-usable non-BPA lids in the USA in May.

    • Liz says:

      I read that choice study about BPA too and from memory the only one without BPA was Ardmona which is of course owned by Coca Cola and they are closing factories at the moment so it isn’t a particularly ethical choice even if it is a safer one. I wish these companies would make it easier to be able to shop healthily and with a conscience.

  9. KL says:

    It was a very interesting read; please rant more. I thought these problems exist only in the US; but it seems like they are everywhere nowadays. :-(.

  10. L says:

    OK, where to start? I am sooo with you on most of this, but I’ll add my thoughts.

    I agree about the food miles, and constantly lament the lack of certain local industries, particularly ones where it seems there is no reason for them not to exist. Capers and pine nuts for example – why can’t you buy Australian – grown? I believe there is a developing caper industry in South Australia and they have started some pine nut plantations in the NSW Southern Highlands. But I guess I should be more pragmatic and just get comfortable with the fact that some things grow better elsewhere in the world. The epitome of bad food miles in my book is the Cartoon-character bottled fruit juice you see in the food courts of major shopping centres. It’s fruit cordial – with a cartoon character label slapped on and shipped all the way from China. At least the reconstituted orange juices only have the concentrate imported, not the water too!

    Food labeling is annoying, but doesn’t really get my back up the same way as other issues unless it directly relates to GMO (that on the other hand seriously pisses me off!) I think that the vast majority of consumers don’t read the label anyway.

    The supermarket duopoly makes me so mad I can hardly see straight. I am proud to report that I haven’t stepped foot into Coles or Woollies since November, and surprisingly my budget is better for it. Those places are temples of manipulation, and you always end up spending more than you need to, just by going in.

    I made a comment on one on Frogdancer’s posts about the duopoly that I’d like to re-interate. It is specifically about their catalogue or ‘loss-leader’ specials. Coles and Woolworths NEVER make a loss on these. The duopoly power of the supermarkets means that in any given week they *dictate* to the suppliers when their product is going to be on special then reduce the price accordingly – cutting the manufacturer’s margin by that amount, and their own margin by zero.

    My parents work in the egg industry (well until July, because they have been made redundant – factory shutting down), and this has been their experience. I thought perhaps that there was an inequitable power relationship in their particular case, but I recently spoke to a friend who works for a major (international) supplier of processed snackfoods and they told me the same thing – the big 2 dictate the terms of the special, and if you don’t agree to supply at the lower price, they pull your product from the shelves.

    All this on top of the fact that manufacturers have to pay for shelf space in the first place!

    I also really wonder how this “cut-price fresh produce” thing is playing out behind the scenes. Farmers can’t afford smaller margins, yet they can afford to be cut from Woolworths/Coles supply contracts even less.

    I have another friend whose parents ran a very specific type of food production company. They were forced to upgrade their packaging equipment (at their own cost) over the past 2 years in order to keep their contract with Woolworths. They have now just gone bust due to oppressive debt levels, all of their staff have lost their jobs. Not the retirement they were planning.

    I have very mixed feelings about Aldi. I like the shopping experience, but I know from my parents’ experience that they are even more aggressive than Coles/Woolworths in their contract negotiations. I guess that should be obvious from the pricing, huh? Aldi is really just a whole shop full of the private-label products that I so despise at the big 2. The only mitigating factor is that it is diversifying the market to some extent away from the duopoly.

    Where does this leave me? Growing more and more of my own food, buying more from my organic F & V service where I know exactly which farmer is supplying my produce, (and even the price they are receiving), eliminating expensive processed products like specialist cleaners and unnecessary convenience products like disposable nappies. And I can honestly say it costs less. It just takes a radical change in perspective and more effort.

    But gee it’s satisfying! I have been grinning in delight every time I get a ‘we miss you’ email from Woolworths Everyday Rewards.

    • Liz says:

      Have you read the book “Shopped” by Joanna Blythman? Its about supermarkets in the UK but basically it reiterates all the points you make here about supermarkets squeezing suppliers etc. I read it when I lived there about 7 or 8 years ago now and I have to say it really opened my eyes to a lot that goes on. Interestingly I was listening to the radio the other day and there was a Coles guy on justifying the fresh produce discounting and he had a very distant English accent. Head hunted to bring the UK supermarket ethos (destroy all competition and squeeze everything you can from suppliers pretty much covers it) here perhaps? I do like the idea of you grinning at your we miss you emails! Sadly (or not) I’m not a member of everyday rewards so my absense from their stores will go unnoticed….

  11. L says:

    Had to cut my comment in half:

    BPA – I don’t pretend to understand the science, but if stuff is coming out of packaging and into our bodies in detectable levels, then surely that can’t be good!? I haven’t bought canned tomatoes since I ranted about this last time. I’ve bottled my own (with non-plastic-lined lids) and I’m still going through my own supply. I’m also using a pressure cooker for cooking dried beans, which is my other big canned food item.

    Cage Eggs – I must admit to this being a little ‘close to home’. I’ve admitted in the past that I used to collect eggs from cage hens as a uni job. The horror stories you hear are absolutely true. I saw hens living in their own filth, crammed so closely that they would peck each other to death just for something to do. I know how eggs form within the anatomy of a chicken because I saw it happening inside a chicken whose flesh had been pecked away by her cage-mates. Fascinating how the yolks form first (there’s a cache of them within the hen’s body), and slowly move through the shell-forming process before being laid.
    Despite all this I have been using cage eggs for years when my parents bring them to us. I didn’t want to offend them, and I guess being so close to the horror makes you a little immune to the details. My solution now (obviously) is to have backyard chickens, and it is one of the best decisions we have made. I don’t think that people keeping backyard hens is the cause of the glut though – that is because of the La Nina summer, and the chickens lay less in the blazing heat. The NSW birds have been producing like mad in the long day length with mild temperatures.

    • Liz says:

      I have been doing regular Fowlers searches on ebay myself. I’m too scared of pressure cookers (I am ridiculously paranoid sometimes) but I dont mind being organised and soaking them the day before. We do eat tinned tuna though quite often. I have seen tuna in glass, but never cheaply – once again a case of getting what you pay for I guess….I’m glad you saw inside a chicken so I don’t have to – that is faascinating though. We didn’t have a particularly La Nina summer in Vic – just normal really, but I take your point about NSW birds, shame coz I did like the idea of the glut being caused by backyard chickens…
      Thankyou VERY much for all your thought provoking comments – much appreciated and very insightful.

  12. Bumblelush says:

    Great post–and very educational for someone who lives in the States. We do have similar issues here, except for the supermarket duopoly. I’ve been educating myself more on the other issues you mentioned (food miles, caged eggs) and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been consciously buying food from local small farmers and trying only to buy what’s in season. I live outside Washington, DC, and I’m fortunate that there are many small local farms and local producers of milk, cheese, and growers of free-range chicken (eggs), grass-fed beef. etc. Unfortunately, it all costs more than supermarket food, and this often prevents people from buying local. I also feel bad for people in areas where it’s practically impossible to get something grown ethically and sustainably. Awareness is important, and I thank you for your post. The more that people talk about these issues and educate themselves, maybe the easier it will be to have access to healthier food in the future.

    • Liz says:

      I think you’re absolutely right about awareness raising. I do sometimes feel very middle class and fortunate even raising some of these issues because there are so many people who have so little choice about where they shop due to financial and logistical constraints.

  13. Gardenglut says:

    Its a great list and I totally agree wityh you – esp on the food miles and the damn supermarkets.

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