- a blog about food and value

Channel 4 Dispatches: The True Cost of Cheap Food

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme investigated supermarket ‘bargain’ foods last night, with the food critic Jay Rayner. I missed small bits of the show due to some toddler melodrama, but saw most of it.

Like most Channel 4 documentaries it was fairly well shot and entertaining, but told you a load of stuff you already knew and failed to probe the subject to any depth. I’d like to know what the markup on bargain food is compared to regular or quality ranges. The documentary suggested that bargain ranges are of such low quality that they’re insanely cheap to produce, but then again the prices are so low. Asda sell packets of 8 sausages for 16p! It’s pretty clear that buying bargain ranges is a false economy, but I would have liked to see the retailers’ profit margins laid out.

Two families lent the human interest angle to the story; one shopped from bargain ranges only (such as Tesco Value), the other from small retailers and markets. The bargain shoppers saved the most on their monthly bill but weren’t always happy with the quality and choice on offer. The other family still managed to save a surprising amount – nearly a third of their normal monthly outlay.

Some stuff I learned

Not much really. Is there anyone out there who would be surprised by the revelation that a 59p meat pie does not contain quality meat?  Rayner argued that those at the bottom of the income ladder have no choice but to eat this food, which may be true. Although I find that British telly is full of middle-class people declaiming on the diet of the poor, with little or no input from actual poor people.  He suggested that the supermarkets have a social responsibility to take a small hit on the profits and improve the quality of their cheapest food – I agree with him but think it’s very unlikely to happen.

Cheap chicken breast fillets are anything from 15-40% water. Water is injected into the fillets along with salt and stabilising agents to plump them up. You’re better off buying normal chicken breasts from a butcher and cutting them in half if you’re trying to save.  You can see a clip of Heston Blumenthal monkeying around with chicken and syringes on The Guardian website.

Iceland have a premium range! Who knew? When Iceland were in Dublin, the food was so cheap it was sinister. I used to have bad dreams about the offers in their windows…offers like 50 Chicken Nuggets for 99p. And then they hired Kerry Katona, who also frequently haunts my nightmares, as the face of their brand. I was extremely relieved when they moved out of Ireland.

What did you think of the documentary?

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