Kirsten Dunst as Marie Anoinette 

Marie Antoinette may not actually have suggested that her people eat cake (as Gareth Russell makes clear in this blog post), but the spirit of that comment has been alive and exceptionally well over the last week or so in Britain. Consumers, Rose Prince, food writer of the Telegraph made clear on BBC Radio 4, shouldn’t buy ready-meals; they should pop round to their local butchers, buy some cheap healthy cuts and cook them at home for their family. Some of the questions this raised seemed as foreign to Ms Prince as knocking up Osso Buco probably is to the average Findus “Beef” Lasagne fan.

As a professional foodie, Ms Prince not only knows where to find her local butcher, and what to do with the meat it sells; she also has the time to go there – not to mention rather more cash than the average consumer.

There are three reasons why consumers in Britain and elsewhere buy cheap ready-meals.
a) they taste good – or good enough – to the people who buy them. (Findus’s, Tesco’s, Aldi’s and all the other companies involved all pay food chemists healthy wages to make sure of this).

b) they are quick and easy to prepare for people who prefer to watch amusing characters on TV slaving over a stove rather than do too much of it themselves

and, most crucially of all

c) they’re cheap!

Even Rose Prince conceded that replicating meat (whatever its origin) lasagne for £1.29 would not be easy. It was up to consumers, she implied, to change their eating patterns.

Of course, it’s fair to point out at this point that we spend less of our income on wine than previous generations. Back in the 30s, Brits, like their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, spent around a fifth of their disposable income on food. Today, the figure is under 9% – significantly more than the Americans – who spend around 6% – and less than Italy – where they spend a huge 14%

Revealingly, however, and not very surprisingly, when one stops to think about it, the proportion of their money people splash out on food bears a direct relationship to the relative wealth of the country in which they live – and indeed their own financial situation. Most of the richer countries – the US, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden – spend under 12%. The highest proportion – as the chart below illustrates – is spent by countries where malnutrition is rife. Even in Britain, the poorest 10% of the population spend twice as big a proportion – 16% – on food as their richer compatriots.

Obviously, for cultural reasons, there are relatively wealthy national exceptions to this rule, such as France and Belgium (both at over 13%). Now if the Brits, Canadians and Americans were like the French, they’d enjoy a better and probably healthier diet. Whether they’d be happier is harder to say. (Unless you are the kind of middle-class journalist who knows what would make other people happy).

To download a readable version of this chart, click here
It is interesting – to me at least – to take a level-headed look at the way Brits have spent all of their disposable income over recent years. They are mocked for devoting too much of their cash on Sky subscriptions, and it is true that the £58.10 each household spent per week in 2011 on “Recreation and Culture” actually exceeded their bill for food and non-alcoholic drinks (£53.10), but it has only risen by a pound in six years. The food bill, by contrast rose by 19% over the same period – and it has gone up still further since. The proportion that went on “Housing, Fuel and Power” spiraled at a similar rate, while Transport grabbed an extra 8%. As the Guardian pointed out, the “typical British household now spends 20% more meeting transport costs – £65.70 a week – than on food and [non alcoholic] drink”. Regular readers of this blog will notice that the proportion that went on alcohol barely moved – despite the duty rate increases over that period. Thanks to a tax-funded welfare state, the £11.80 dedicated every week to beer, wines and spirits by a household is actually more than is spent on education and over twice as much as goes on health costs such as prescription charges.

Twenty years ago, Britons did not have satellite tv and broadband bils to pay, but many of them didn’t have cars either. In 2011, the average household had to find £488.80, just to cover their car insurance, a whopping 17.5% more than the previous year. The cost of that insurance now exceeds the total expenditure on fruit and vegetables. 

The people who complain at consumers’ unwillingness to spend more on food might also note their unwillingness to dig deeper when they do their clothes shopping. In 2011, we are, it seems, giving less of our income to what we wear than we did in 2005. Unless, this trend changes, presumably, our underwear will become flimsier or the sweatshop workers will have an even more unhappy time. 

So do we blame Tesco, Findus, Top Shop and Primark for offering us all this cheap stuff,or do we blame the customers who stand at the checkouts of those stores every day.

To download this Office for National Statistics chart go here

One answer to this question was offered by a survey in the trade journal, The Grocer. Despite everything they have read, 50% of meat eaters are not prepared to pay even a penny more to be sure of getting beef in their cheap lasagne. Admittedly a substantial minority (30%) said they’d shop from their butchers more often while nearly a quarter said they’d do more cooking. Ms Prince should be gratified.

It is easy to dismiss surveys like these, but I recall British housewives piling into supermarkets in December 1997 to buy discounted – possible BSE-infected – beef over a weekend before the imposition of a government ban.

Sadly perhaps, those who’d like to imagine an ideal world where British, American and Canadian people on moderate incomes forgo their TV sport and movies and their car in favour of better, healthier food and wine are likely to be disappointed. 

  1. Robert,
    Very interesting post and full of relevant data. Of the three reasons you give for why people buy ready-made meals, the first two seem completely plausible, but I disagree with your third reason: ie that said meals are cheap. They are only apparently cheap, in terms of the cash that consumers pay out there and then. What of the hidden costs?

    Who pays for the pollution caused by the agro-chemical industry as they grow the crops on the land, to soil, air and waters? Ditto, as the factories process these raw materials and turn them into ready-made meals?

    Who pays for increased medical costs due to obesity, allergies, digestive tract ailments, etc

    Alas, it is as you say, and most consumers apparently do not care enough about their environment or about their health. So what can one do? Looks like it's a case of caveat emptor! ie, if you enjoy supermarket quality meals today, you'll also enjoy supermarket quality health tomorrow, and our children and theirs will enjoy a supermarket quality environment in the future.

  2. Nothing to argue with here. Hidden costs are, as you say, hidden. What applies to £1.29 lasagne applies to £2 t-shirts.

    On the other hand, if you look at those expenditure figures, there's not a lot of spare cash – at least not in the pockets of the poorer people – the ones most likely to be buying these things

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