I’ve been reading up on supermarkets for a little while, but I haven’t broached the topic yet here. It’s big, and it’s hard to know where to start. It’s also a difficult one, because a lot of anti-supermarket writing is motivated by snobbery as much as anything else, and that makes it easy for people to ignore or to knock down. And of course, supermarkets are very convenient, and have made a wide range of food available and cheap to everyone, so attacking them can look like biting the hand that feeds you.
So, while I get my own thoughts together on the subject, let me tell you about Joanna Blythman‘s book, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. It’s a easy book to read. It’s divided into seven chapters, and each of those is in shorter sections, so you get a concise summary of a wide range of issues. Blythman doesn’t sensationalise anything here. She never has to come out and denounce the supermarkets. She just lines up point after point until it’s obvious, and you don’t want to darken the doors of a Tesco again.
Issues range from the devastation of town centres, to planning permission scandals, to bad food culture. Each is illustrated with interviews with suppliers, local traders, food experts. To her credit, she even joins Asda for research, giving up half-way through the ‘welcome to the Wal-mart family’ induction programme. She joins Tesco instead, and writes about supermarket jobs from first-hand experience.
Perhaps most enlightening though is the section on the food itself. There’s a wealth of information here that made me long for better food, genuine ingredients. Supermarket food is so standard now that we’ve forgotten what real food is – that there are over 300 different types of banana, that block cheese is actually the least interesting kind of cheese, that real meat is rarely red, that bread never used to last a week without going hard, that plums are supposed to taste of something. There are all sorts of questions we need to ask ourselves about the food we eat. Do we want the compromises that supermarket food makes standard?
The supermarkets insist that we do, that they’re only supplying demand. But such is their monopoly now that there is no alternative. It’s harder than ever to live without them, and to exercise a genuine consumer choice.
There are some points that aren’t covered here. There’s plenty about growers, and not so much about meat production and animal welfare. Those interested in food miles will find only passing references, although there is plenty about local food and local specialities. But these are small quibbles with an otherwise fairly comprehensive overview.
There are always people (I meet them all the time) who say it’s unfair to read only one side of the story. These people should be pointed to the high street, but you could also show them the last section of the book. Blythman gives the supermarkets the right of reply, an offer which a few take up, and they have the space to defend themselves. Of course they deny everything, but it makes for a balanced and fair portrayal, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind.