No. 151

SAY CHEESE – BUT ONLY FOR THE ARTISAN (NOT ALDI) PRODUCT

Blessed are the cheese makers but, stone the crows, they complain when they aren’t.[i]

Close observers of cheesy comestibles will have noticed the Easter Show prizes last week. And (the udder please) Aldi was a big winner, with eight gold medals and the best in show award.[ii]

Yes that Aldi. The supermarket supposedly patronised by plebs who cannot tell their arse from their emmental, turns out to supply great cheese. Not that quality counts, at least to boutique cheese makers, who were appalled by the awards.

Some saw it as a denial of artistic achievement:

President of the Specialist Cheesemakers” Association, Carla Meurs, says the awards may mislead consumers as they don”t give any information about who is actually making the cheese.[iii]

Which assumes people want to choose cheese, based on the name of the maker.

According to “artisan cheesemaker” Michael Macnamara it is much more alarming. Aldi’s win is part of the struggle between the dairy community and the supermarkets. Writing, (what a surprise!) in The Age, he warned against the supermarkets’ sinister scheme, “a world devoid of brands inevitably puts price first and quality last”. [iv]

Um, given Aldi won on the merits of the product, not price, spot the flaw in that argument.

In any case the supermarkets have only 53 per cent of cheese sales –indicating there are plenty of places that are selling specialist products in a domestic industry worth $1.7bn in 2011-12. [v]

The great cheesed-off is a corollary of two foodie fallacies – small producers are artists and as such are morally superior to supermarket suppliers, and everybody who does not buy organic this and that from people who produce little and charge a lot is a philistine.

Complaints about competitors are as old as agriculture itself and are traditionally redressed by taxpayers stumping up for products they don’t use. The Victorian Farmers Market Association has actually called for “national funding for the establishment of sustainable farmers’ markets”.[vi] But just now fashionable foodies blame supermarket shoppers.

As fine food producer Maggie Beer puts it:

Australians say they will support Australian-made and Australian-grown, but will we? We support what”s marketed most, and we so often support what”s cheapest, especially with food. … I know we live in a global market, but our local farmers can not compete against the imports of a global market when it comes to the cost of our labour. It”s important that we pay a proper wage to a farm worker that not only sustains a family but sustains farming communities – whole communities.”[vii]

In other words, poor people in the suburbs should pay more for their tucker because farm folk deserve it.

Then there are the food artists sneering at people who are less sophisticated, which is a mainstay on the menu. When McDonalds wanted to open in the Barossa, the local foodies went feral, with Maggie Beer leading the charge.

It wasn’t that she opposed fast food, heavens no, it’s just that McDonalds does not use local produce, she said: “We need to protect the culture of the valley that brings us so many tourist,” – but only the right sort of tourists, mind – “We have to keep working on the Barossa as a gourmet destination.

And as for locals who cannot afford flash prices, well perhaps the Barossa is not for them. As Ms Beer put it: “For me McDonalds would be like a thorn in the valley’s side. We would be seen as talking the talk not living the life.” [viii] What’s more, her son Philip added, the locals could not compete against McDonalds on price.[ix] Good lord, imagine asking artists to compete with burger flippers.

As for why people insist on buying food from supermarkets, the elite artisans and their allies have an answer for that as well. We (plebs?) know no better and need protecting from ourselves and, of course, from those terrible capitalists intent on feeding us dodgy dinners.

Consider the National Public Health Association’s submission to the national food plan (yes it was news to the Crows too):[x]

Consumers currently have a luxury of choice, provided by a supply of a wide variety of foods all year round. There needs to be a shift in understanding by consumers about the impact of this. … Realistic expectations of the food supply include, but are not limited to understanding and valuing local food production and seasonal availability of food. Also, limiting over consumption and food wastage as well as developing a shared understanding of the right action to mitigate climate change influences on the food supply and vice versa.[xi]

Everybody clear on that? While the sinister supermarkets provide choice and availability we would not want any of it if we only knew how wicked it is.

And to make sure we know what is best for us the association advocates food literacy indoctrination, sorry education:

There is an urgent need to empower Australians with the knowledge and skills to be able to select, prepare, cook and consume a healthy and sustainable dietary intake. Increasingly consumers are being deskilled and these skills devalued as the food industry takes over food decision-making and preparation traditionally done in the home. … PHAA supports the investment in the community delivery of food literacy programs as an important strategy to improve health outcomes. This program will support and empower consumers to make healthy food choices. [xii]

They could run the compulsory classes at official farmers markets – where poor people would be allowed to look at flash foods their kids would not want, or which they could not afford.

It is all special pleading palaver – from artisan cheese makers who hate the idea of being judged alongside lesser mortals through regional rent seekers who like their area the way it is and do not want lower cost competitors and on to ideologues who want to expand their authority tell everybody what to do.

And it is all irrelevant to the one question that matters to proper regulation of the food supply – are the supermarket chains abusing their power? The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is on to that one, with a new and very broad inquiry.[xiii]

As for producers who do not want to supply to or compete with the majors – they don’t have to. As one cheese maker told the Fin on the weekend:

The success of farmers’ markets, ability of producers to deal direct with consumers – including on the internet – and more means of communicating are making supermarkets less important to business success.

It’s the market at work and it is as natural as turning milk into cheese.

 

ENDNOTES


[i] Monty Python’s Life of Brian, @ www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xLUEMj6cwA recovered on February 23

[ii] Saffron Howden, “Aldi’s show has artisans cheesed off,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 19 @ www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/201302/s3693472.htm www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/201302/s3693472.htm recovered on February 23

[iii] Flint Duxfield, “Aldi envy at cheese awards,” ABC Rural February 19 @

[iv] Michael McNamara, “Passion and pride are the missing ingredients,” The Age February 19

[v] Dairy Australia, Cheese statistics,” @ www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Statistics-and-markets/Production-and-sales/Cheese.aspx recovered on February 23

[vi] “Submission from Victorian Farmers’ Market Association,” August 22 2011 @ www.daff.gov.au/nationalfoodplan/process-to-develop/issues-paper/submissions-received/victorian_farmers_markets_association_inc recovered on February 22

[vii] Paddy Manning, “Famous foodie lashes supermarket stranglehold,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 29 2012

[viii] Elissa Doherty and Amy Taeuber, “Barossa foodies fight new McDonalds restaurant,” Adelaide Now, December 6 2009 @ www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/barossa-foodies-fight-new-mcdonalds-restaurant/story-e6frea83-1225807350473 recovered on February 23

[ix] Doherty and Taeuber, ibid

[x] Australian Government, “National Food Plan,” October 3 2102 @ www.daff.gov.au/nationalfoodplan/national-food-plan recovered on February 22

[xi] Public Health Association of Australia, “National Food Consultation Plan,” September 2 2011 @ www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/2016518/Public_Health_Association_of_Australia.pdf recovered on February 22

[xii] PHAA, ibid

[xiii] Matthew Drummond, “Spooking supermarts,” Australian Financial Review, February 23

'2012