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Dispatches: The True Cost of Cheap Food

Nicola Mostyn on Jay Rayner, and how restaurant critics can contain only 10% meat

Published on January 27th 2009.


Dispatches: The True Cost of Cheap Food

“Britain is now firmly in recession,” food critic Jay Rayner tells us at the start of this documentary into supermarket budget brands. Really? No? Are you sure? Did I miss a memo or something? Thus begins what will eventually become a festival of stating the bleeding obvious.

It all started promisingly enough, with Rayner pointing out that, whilst plenty of retailers are struggling, supermarkets are still doing well, since groceries are not a luxury we can cut out of our budget. Pesky biology. What we can do, however, is downscale to cheaper brands and we are doing, in our thousands. Meanwhile the supermarkets have put the full might of their marketing campaigns behind their low priced alternatives.

But what is the impact of this low brand consumption? That’s the question this edition of Dispatches sets out to answer. First Rayner challenges two Leeds based families who are feeling the pinch to change their eating habits. The Johnsons will aim to live for four weeks soley on budget brands from the four main players – Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury. Their friends, the Fergusons will eschew supermarkets altogether in favour of local producers.

The rest of the documentary involves Rayner taking a closer look at what goes into these low priced products. Concentrate: here comes the science bit as, with the help of Food Technologist David Harrison, Rayner first examines the content of several beef and chicken pies.

There then follows some quite dull statistics about how the low priced pies contained less meat that all the higher prices alternatives from the same supermarket. In the budget pies, much of the filling included “added connective tissue” explains David. Connective tissue? What’s that? Velcro?

Nope. Actually it’s that white sinewy bit that helps keep a cow together. Tasty. Firmly disgusted by the outcome, Rayner gives David the challenge of improving the pies. This involves some footage of Rayner standing next to a larger meat grinder. “You still couldn’t chew that” says the man doing the grinding, of the resultant minced mix. Ah well, chewability is overrated anyway. Especially since we sold our teeth to pay the mortgage.

Eventually David comes up with the goods, upping the meat content of the pies for a cost of only about 1p a pop. Rayner is smug, though I’m not sure why since it seems fairly obvious that improving these woeful pies wouldn’t be much of a task; roll them around your kitchen floor and you’ll probably increase their meat content by 5%. But Rayner is indignant and triumphant all at once, taking his new and improved pies onto the streets to do a taste test. Unshockingly, most people prefer the meatier pie. “And do you think supermarkets should improve the quality of their lower brand products, taking the financial hit themselves?” Unshockingly, they do.

Next up, sausages are under the spotlight and - hold the front page – the budget bangers contain less meat and so less protein than their more expensive counterparts. And yes, David can make a meatier one for a fraction of a pence more. And yes, the public prefer the meatier sausage. And yes, they do think the supermarkets should increase the quality of budget foods and take the financial hit themselves. And…am I the only one feeling the urge to smack my head against the TV?

Next, we have a look at apple pies. Rayner is appalled to find that some of the pies only contain 10% apple. Is this so bad? I mean, there’s 90% pie in there, too. I’m finding it hard to work up my fury by now. Times being so hard, I think I’ll save my righteous anger for when there’s only 10% of apple in an apple.

But there’s no holding back this simple pie-man, who is quickly off to test his wares on the freebie-hungry public. David had improved the pies, people preferred them, supermarkets should hand us free cash at the checkout…blah blah blah.

Still on his hobby horse about the social responsibility of supermarkets, Rayner takes the issue to the Food Policy Director who patiently explains what we’ve been thinking all through the programme: people want cheap food. If the supermarkets make a better product even for the same price, another supermarket will just undercut them with a worse, cheaper one and the poorest people will buy that instead. You can’t help feeling that Rayner, like Jamie and his school dinners, has his heart in the right place but lacks the experience of what it really means to be on the breadline to make any kind of sensible difference.

So how about the families who are actually living with the impact of the credit crunch? Over at the Fergusons, mum Jane has confirmed what we already knew: shopping locally can be much cheaper, but it’s a total pain in the arse to lug back to the car.

Chez Johnson, the low brand food didn’t seem to go down too badly, especially with the kids. Cute, but no restaurant-critics-in-waiting, they pronounce every single cheap meal they ate to be “lovely”, their taste buds possibly desensitised by too many turkey twizzler school dinners. Ah well, their arteries may be clogged, but at least they’re recession-proofed.

And so concludes this totally pointless documentary. Now, says Rayner to the Johnsons, what will you be doing to celebrate now you no longer have to eat budget food? I’m sure he’s envisaging a lovingly cooked salmon or a plate of organic vegetables or a fantastic cut of expensive beef…

“I think we can have Chinese tomorrow night,” says Mrs Johnson to a momentarily speechless Rayner.

Dispatches: The True Cost of Cheap Food is available on 4OD now.

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