Despite Asda's £2 chicken, many predict that the era of cheap food is coming to an end. If this causes us to start valuing our food properly again, it will be no bad thingby Alex Renton / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
The end of cheap food?
Not many of you, I suspect, will have noticed the arrival in August of the £2 chicken at Asda, Britain’s cheapest supermarket chain. But it produced a glimmer of light in the generally dismal history of mass-produced food. Asda’s 1.55kg bird (cheaper, kilo for kilo, than the store’s dog and cat food) was less a marvel of battery-chicken technology than a tactical coup in the price war that drives Britain’s big retail chains: the chicken went on sale as a loss leader, a yah-boo-sucks to Asda’s rivals in the battle to be seen providing “better value.” Of course, anyone who has eaten basic supermarket poultry knows that such meat is all but valueless, as you’d expect from something reared from egg to killing weight in under six weeks.
Chicken, the staple of British meat eating—38 per cent of all consumption—is bred first and foremost to be cheap. Its taste and texture—and the birds’ welfare—are of minimal importance, because Britons have been trained to buy flavour separately, in rather more expensive bottles and packets. Obviously enough, this works nicely for the supermarkets, but less well for the poultry farmers, who, according to Exeter University’s Centre for Rural Policy Research, typically get less than 2p profit per bird. And the price of chicken in Britain has risen only by 15 per cent in the last 20 years, whereas most foodstuffs have gone up by between 100 and 200 per cent. The cheapest chicken now comes from Thailand: the only reason there’s still a mass poultry industry in this country is because of some lingering value in having a “British chicken” stamp on the label.
So what could be good about the £2 chicken? For a start, the reaction of Tesco, which decided to resist Asda’s challenge and instead increased the price of its equivalent chicken by 4 per cent to £3.39. Terry Leahy, Tesco’s canny chief executive, announced that he believed we were seeing “a fundamental shift in the priority that consumers place on food.” What he has spotted is that the extraordinary and continuing growth in organic sales—up 22 per cent in 2006—is not just about the middle classes. “The growth in the proportion of our customers buying organics is fastest among less affluent customers. This could be a big long-term positive for the industry,” Leahy said.
Too right. Big box retailers in Britain…