Mon, Jan 28, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Is this the end of cheap food?

People in developed nations have grown used to low-cost food, but that is about to change as global forces drive huge increases that could threaten international stability

By Alex Reton  /  THE OBSERVER , EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Outside a Co-op supermarket in Edinburgh this month, I met three sisters, all doing their shopping for this weekend. In their baskets were tins, mainly -- Ambrosia creamed rice and minted peas. They were peering at stickers and examining labels with the look of hardened skeptics.

"Terrible, just terrible," said Betty Pryde, at 82 the eldest of the three. "Look at the price of these eggs."

They were free range, and cost ?1.28 (US$2.50) for six -- 60 percent more than in most supermarkets a year ago.

"Everything's gone up," she said.

The sisters live apart but they often shop together, pooling their state pensions. Jean, 78, the youngest, said she doesn't bother looking at the prices, she just gets what she needs. Her older sisters looked at her as if she had just said something naughty.

"Oh no, you've got to watch the prices -- bread, milk, everything, it's all going up," said Nan, 79.

And they all agreed their weekly shopping bill was up a good 10 percent on last year, although the cost of gas and electricity was more of a worry to them.

"It's the price of oil, isn't it? And the bad weather?" said Nan, musing over the reason for the price rises.

"The shops, they all like a profit well over the score," Jean said.

"Aye, well, I must get on," Betty said.

Clearly this was the wrong moment for a long chat.

"I want a bit of fish for my supper, and I imagine that's gone through the roof, too," Betty said.

When they had gone, the store was as empty as a church on a Monday. But the discount grocery store Lidl, a block away, was throbbing. Poundstretcher next door was packed, as was the discount frozen foods store, Farm Foods. And no wonder -- food prices are rising faster than they have at any time since the mid-1970s. The middle class in Britain has barely noticed, but here in one of the poorer corners of Scotland, people are feeling the pain.

Everyone in the stripped-down warehouse of Lidl, where the posters promise, simply enough "40 percent cheaper!" had a story to tell.

Shubnam Rasoul, 23, out shopping with her husband, Shahid, and their two small children, said: "I never buy anything for myself any more. And I never buy anything that's full price -- it's all in the sales."

Shahid, who works in a Leith butcher's shop, said that the price of their lamb is up 10 percent since last month.

"We spend ?200 a month now on groceries for the family," he complained. "Probably 25 percent more on a year ago. It's frightening."

While a liter of orange juice is ?0.57 in Lidl, it sells for ?0.99 in the Co-op. Such products, and staple foods like eggs, bread, frozen peas, butter and cheese have seen price rises of between 20 percent and 30 percent in mainstream supermarkets. Mysupermarket.co.uk, which collates UK supermarket prices daily, puts the overall rise last year at 12 percent. That means the average British family's shopping bill has gone up by ?750 a year.

DIFFERENT WORLDS

From Lidl, I went to another food shop, only a kilometer away, but a planet away in every other way. Occupying part of a terrace in the grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town, Herbie's is a fittingly stylish grocer/cafe -- the sort of place where they don't put price labels on the goods in the chill cabinet because, presumably, no one is particularly bothered. If you do ask, half a liter of milk here costs ?0.75 -- in Lidl it's ?0.32.

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