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This article by Pippa Gallop appeared in the May-June 2001 issue of Corporate Watch Newsletter and was reprinted in the March 2002 issue of Sovereignty.

Most people are coming to realise the environmental and economic benefits of eating local, seasonal produce. The supermarkets have spotted a marketing niche and most now have local or regional sourcing policies. But what do these actually mean? Have they really had a change of heart and does this mean an end to air-freighted New Zealand apples in September? Or is it just the greenwash departments working overtime?

Reading all the PR about local food sourcing, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that supermarkets are trying really hard to mend their fuel-guzzling, community-wrecking ways.

All the major supermarkets are beginning to respond to the increased consumer interest in the fate of local communities and producers by launching local, or at least regional, sourcing initiatives.

Reading through their policies is an almost heartwarming experience, with a plethora of pledges to buy Lancashire tomatoes, Cornish vegetables, Cotswold lamb, Welsh mountain lamb and so on. Tesco's Locally Grown range apparently shows which county products are from, with some products even naming the farm. It all sounds rather belated, but well-intentioned. But what does it mean in reality?

I went to the nearest Tesco to see this cutting-edge idea of local sourcing in action. Not to shop, you understand, just to look. In theory, there should be 2100 locally produced lines somewhere in Tesco stores in Britain. Could I find anything local? Er, no, actually. A few bits of meat plastered in Union Jack stickers was about it.

I phoned the shop later, to ask when they would be bringing the marvelous Locally Grown range into stock. "Ooh, sorry, I've no idea" said the lady at the other end, "I'll put you through to personnel". Sorry? Since when have personnel been responsible for recruiting locally grown vegetables? Hmm.

But perhaps only those who needlessly drive to out-of-town stores are graced with the Locally Grown range, and mere mortals who live near Tesco Metros are presumed to be townies who think milk comes from a tanker anyway. Yet I found no evidence of labeled local produce in the nearest out-of town Tesco either.

Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming has also found rather minimal levels of local stocking in supermarkets around the country. Looking at products such as bread, cheese, beef, mineral water and apples in a selection of stores around the country, they found that out of 2075 products surveyed, only 79, or 4% (1), were sourced locally. Even this is being generous considering that these products are the most basic ones in a supermarket, and therefore the easiest to source locally, and that most of the local bread was from in-store bakeries, so there is no guarantee that any of the ingredients were locally sourced.

It's certainly early days for local food (or at least it is when you are as hard-of-ecological-thinking as a supermarket), but this is not impressive. Local food doesn't seem all that newfangled, yet Asda's target - which is at least defined, in contrast to others - is just two per cent of sales! (2)

Even if you do manage to locate some local produce in a supermarket, the chances are it has been half way round the country before it has reached the shelves. A noted example is the St. Merryn Meat abattoir and processing plant in Cornwall, much used for meat exports and by Tesco.

Even when animals are reared the other side of the country, they have to be taken to Cornwall to be killed, Of course this is a serious animal welfare problem, but it is also questionable on climate change and pollution grounds. It hardly needs adding that disease is spread around the country much quicker when long-distance transport of livestock takes place.

In addition, when it was decided that St. Merryn would have such an increase in trade, its facilities expanded greatly, and presumably so did the volume of offcuts, effluents and smells associated with abattoirs. These are much better dealt with in much smaller quantities in different locations.

Yet the supermarkets I have spoken with seem to be quite outspoken in their pride at seeking out small producers and stretching them to provide for most of the country's stomachs. Certainly producers can reap short-term benefits from rapid expansion, but they have all the further to fall if they fall foul of supermarkets' notoriously picky quality control whims.

Of course, the less processing a product needs, the fewer miles it will cover, yet even mud-caked organic eco-carrots which aren't in a plastic bag and were grown two miles away (try finding them in a supermarket) will have been to a regional distribution centre. Each supermarket has only a few of these - for example Sainsburys has only 12 centres which distribute chilled goods - meaning even locally-produced food must go somewhere non-local before it returns to the store.

Some chains are finally wising up to the ludicrousness of this, such as Somerfield, which gave its Cotswolds customers the choice of buying a turkey "direct" from local farmers at Christmas. Very nice of them, but why not cut out the middleman? Why involve Somerfield at all? Asda also claims to be the first supermarket to hold farmers' markets in its car parks. It's certainly a better use for them than parking cars, but it seems a little ironic for farmers' markets to be using (and presumably paying for) supermarkets' space, when farmers' markets are largely a response to the supermarket and processor-led destruction of farming. It is possible that supermarkets will go further with the idea of reducing food miles, as some have mentioned getting farmers to deliver directly to stores.

There are certainly enough miles to reduce: Co-op transport covers over 400,000 miles each week in the UK (3), whilst Sainsburys is proud of its record in reducing road transport by an estimated 3.27 million kilometres per year since April 1997! (4). The idea of getting direct-to-store deliveries is fairly sensible in itself, but it could become yet another way for the supermarkets to offload costs onto already hard-pressed farmers.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about the whole affair is that supermarkets don't know what the word local means. According to the many regulatory bodies and supermarkets I conversed with, there is no legal standard definition of what can be sold as local produce, which seems to lead to a conflation of the words British, regional and local.

For comparison, we could use the standard measurement of "local" from farmers' markets: except in London, where local food production is little and far-between, farmers markets see 30-40 miles radius as the boundary of what is local.

In contrast, only a handful of the supermarkets' local food strategies work this way. Sainsburys at least realises this and has tried to source food regionally rather than locally, yet there are still two major problems with its claims. Firstly, these "regions" are basically Wales, Scotland and the South West of England. It seems that the rest of us will have to unite behind a flag and a language before we get equal attention paid to regionally sourced food. Second, once a product is identified as ripe for marketing, purchasing and expansion, it tends to get sold in stores all over the UK, meaning that it is regional for somebody, but not for the majority of customers.

Sorting out these problems, though difficult, might be possible if it wasn't for that old chestnut "shareholder returns". No PLC superstore chain is legally allowed to eat into its huge profits to improve its environmental or social record simply out of goodwill: it must be serving a return-increasing purpose. This is currently the case with local food stocking, which is largely PR-based and includes little of substance, unless local is interpreted as British.

Supermarkets are incapable of dealing with short distances and small producers and processors because they rely on economies of scale for their profits. There is some possibility that in spite of all of this, they would make substantial moves towards stocking more local food if enough people pressured them, but this leaves all the other problems with supermarkets untouched. What will we have achieved if supermarkets just switch to ripping off local farmers instead of distant ones? How will stocking local food make supermarket jobs more rewarding? How will it bring back the independent stores which have been put out of business, or ensure that money stays in the local community? The simple answer is that it will not. Supermarkets are as inexcusable as ever.

(1)   Sustain, Local Food Sourcing - PR or the Real Thing?, unpublished report, April 2001, p.10.
(2)   ibid, p.4.
(3), viewed 10th May 2001
(4)   J. Sainsbury plc. Environmental Report 2000, p.10.

  Recently released Corporate Watch 40-page booklet - What's Wrong with Supermarkets  
is available for £1.50 in stamps from :
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