Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How we change the (food) world


And with “we” I mean you and me. With every decision we make when shopping for food we have an impact on the way food is produced, marketed and sold. We can not afford to think that we are not part of it. The food world has producer, supplier and consumer. All three roles define the world of food as a product.

I would like to use the bakery business and the baking industry as an example. My example is located in Germany, the country where I was born and grew up. Don’t think this is far away and doesn’t affect us here. This is wrong, the situation the bakeries are in Germany is replicated around the world and all across the entire food industry.

Bakers and bakeries go back almost 8,000 years. The oldest remains of a bakery was found in Egypt and dates from 3,000 BC. The German Bakery Haeberlein-Metzger has its roots in 1492 and is still operating.

When I was a boy of 6 years of age we had many bakeries in the small village I grew up in. One bakery was across the school and made a whopping business with us kids. And after school I bought the bread and buns my mum wrote down on a piece of paper. There were about 5 different types of bread, maybe 4 - 5 different kinds of buns and rolls and cakes and Danish etc. Our village also had many other shops, two butchers, one or two grocery stores, a dairy shop where you got milk from the pump and loose cheese. There was no supermarket in sight.

10 years later, the landscape had changed. The village grew into a little town, supermarkets moved in, packaged bread became available but the bakeries were still there. Most of them. One or two gave up because the owner retired and the children didn’t’ have an interest in getting up at midnight and bake bread. They rather went to bed at midnight (or sometimes later). The bread range increased to about 10 - 15 different bread types, a lot of them with added grains. But we still had bakeries run by a baker.

Fast forward another 10 years. Many family owned bakeries have closed. The bread range is huge. Shelves are loaded with breads from all across Europe. 10 or so different types of rolls and buns. Baguette, Italian flat breads, wholegrain, white loaves, dark loaves, pumpernickel, sourdough, half wheat / half rye. Pretzels, buns with poppy seeds, buns with sesame, buns with oats, buns with a mix of grain, buns with sunflower seeds.  A number of bakeries jumped onto this bandwagon. Opened branches, grew bigger, had central bakeries and delivered their bread by truck to the number of branches they had all across the region. Franchising was the word.

Today? Bakeries are almost extinct. People buy their bread in Bakery Supermarkets like “Back-Werk” (BakeAndTake in the UK), Back-Factory and “Back-Koenig” who all have double figure growth rates. The range is huge, no small bakery can afford to offer 20 different types of breads, 10 - 20 different kinds of buns. The prices are below rock bottom.  Bread and buns and all other products are baked on site. But are they made on site?

No, a recent German documentary I watched (“Billige Broetchen” - Cheap Buns (Movie in German only)) shows how it works. Huge factories which look like oil refineries are located in low wage countries like Poland. They produce 1.5 Mill. buns a day, pre-baked, frozen, stored for up to 9 months and shipped around Europe, delivered to bakery-franchises, put in a bake-off oven and sold as fresh buns to customers. For a quarter of the price you would pay in a small family bakery. The owner of one of these bread-supermarkets interviewed in the documentary wasn’t even a baker, he was a gas and heating plumber. The ingredients are lab-tested and adjusted using artificial flavours and enhancers.

Digest these numbers: In the documentary a company owner was interviewed saying they sell 7 Mill. deep frozen buns per month alone in Berlin of one product. The company Diversi Foods in Poland has an immense range of breads. They produce 1.5 million buns a day. And that’s only one of their products. If you want to have a look inside, here is their company video: . Compare this with a village bakery and you understand the unbearable pressure small businesses are under.

The owner of Diversi foods blames the consumer (“Geiz ist Geil” - “Stinginess is Cool” a slogan under which many Germans currently live and consume) for the decline of the German bakery business.

German’s Bakeries are dying. This is a fact. They can’t find apprentices nor can they afford them. Most of them are reduced to husband and wife operations, often working 16 - 20 hours day in shifts. A pretzel selling for 0.50 EUR in a bakery is on offer for 0.08 EUR in a big franchise operation. The biggest food discounter Aldi recently introduced “Backstationen” Baking Stations. The shopper presses a button and out comes the bun or bread. And all for a price way below the material cost a conventional baker has. Many of my German countrymen and women think Aldi should open in New Zealand (they are already in Australia). I had some very heated discussions because I believe it would destroy the remainder of our food system. I think it is a very selfish dream to ask for food which is cheaper than anyone can produce it. That’s the concept of Aldi. You think the Warehouse is bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet!

So who really is to blame. Of course there are the producers and suppliers who want to make a profit. Why should they care about some small outdated family businesses? But what about us? What about the consumer? Aren’t we part of this, too? Aren’t we actually a big part of this? Does it make sense that we ask for cheaper and cheaper products? Do we actually care where our food comes from, who made it, who makes money with it? Or is all we care about what we can buy as cheap as possible. Are we aware that this is actually a self-contained system? You apply pressure at one end and pressure comes out the other end? Why are we surprised that we have so many food scandals. Why are we still surprised by the usage of 2.9 Mill. tons of antibiotics in the production of beef alone in the US? Why are we still wondering why Monsanto creates more and more Frankenfood? Why do we still get upset about chemicals in the milk? Do we all live in La-La -Land and think our actions won’t make a difference? Do we really believe it is all someone else’s fault? Do you really think you are not part of this? Do you really think you are the victim and not the villain?

And don’t make the mistake to believe this is all happening far far away from us. Here in Kaitaia our only butcher closed. The owner couldn’t find a successor. Nobody saw any potential for a small butchery while having the “Big Yellow Stick Man Monster” in town. All we have left now is pre-packaged meat from the shelf.

Will we all soon be fed from factories? We do have a choice. Buy local, buy from small suppliers. Every dollar you spend at a small local shop will help. Every dollar you spend at a big supermarket will be a lost opportunity. Let’s all save our local businesses.

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