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Love it or hate it, why 'Marmite-gate' is good news for our food producers


By: Justin Wright Date: 2 December 2016
Category: Food and drink

Marmite is famously a ‘love it or hate it’ food – but the controversy stoked up by the press recently when Unilever and Tesco came to blows over raising the price of the yeasty spread may have an outcome which is universally palatable to the county’s food producers, if less so to its consumers.

You may recall that Unilever was seeking to raise the price of Marmite by ten per cent; the supermarket said that it had to protect the interests of its customers, and that such a price hike was unacceptable. In the end, Unilever backed down, although the on-the-shelf price has since risen more modestly, which may have been the intention all along.

Tesco is seen to have acted in the interests of its customers, and the producer has achieved the price rise it needed in order to balance the books.

There is a wider issue at play here. The input costs to agriculture and food producers have been steadily rising for some years, while the prices that consumers pay for their food have not. That means that producers, and to a much lesser extent retailers, have had to absorb the extra expense at the cost of profits.

Clearly this is not a sustainable situation, and whilst no-one wants to pay more at the till, ultimately the only way we can ensure that our hard-pressed producers can survive is to pay a fair price for what we eat.

We all moan about rising prices, but in fact our food has been under-priced for a long time. According to DEFRA, on average we spend just over ten per cent of our income on food; that is way less than even 20 years ago, and one of the lowest figures in Europe. We have got used to paying unrealistically low prices for what we eat – and this has to change.

Of course, for some people feeding their families remains a struggle, and rising prices will exacerbate that situation – but that is more a reflection of the high cost of housing than anything else, leaving little left for putting food on the table. For most of us, however, food remains a small proportion of our living expenses.

Brexit and the plummeting pound have brought things to a head, and forced bigger producers, and especially those which rely on imported goods, to act decisively. Consumers are going to have to get used to paying a more realistic price for what they eat.

For local producers, especially those which source their ingredients in the UK, this can only be good news. If mass-market foods command a higher price, then artisan foods will not seem so expensive; and even for local producers making more mainstream products, the pressure that rising input costs have been putting on viability could be about to be eased.

For our farmers too, the weak pound could be good news. Not only will our exports be more competitive, but UK producers are much more likely to start sourcing domestically rather than in overseas markets.

‘Marmite-gate’ may have given newspaper sub-editors some good headlines for a week or two; the outcome could be good news for every part of Norfolk’s food and drink sector.
 
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