Big-business food companies face off, while workers can’t afford to eat

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

Security tags on butter and cheese, or on kids’ multivitamins, are becoming increasingly common. As prices rise and people can’t afford to pay for food, so do reported rates of shoplifting, according to the managing director of Iceland.

Chances are you will have noticed food prices going up and up month after month, or even week after week. According to data analysts Kantar, inflation in supermarkets was at an annualised 8.3% in June, the highest rate in 13 years, adding £380 to annual shopping bills. This figure is £100 more for the year than they had as recently as April!

In the midst of this, a spat between Tesco and several of its suppliers over price increases has sparked off. Products such as baked beans, soups and pet food have seen 20-40% price rises at other retailers, as big brands like Heinz and Mars have raised their wholesale prices.

Tesco bosses, motivated by maintaining their profit margin, have refused to stock the goods. Not because of a concern for their customers’ financial wellbeing, but as a consequence of the big supermarkets’ price war. Rival retailers battle to offer the lowest possible prices to draw in consumers.

By refusing to pay the wholesale prices for beans and pet food, Tesco hopes to be able use its market share to strong-arm the likes of Heinz and Mars into lowering prices. In turn, Heinz and Mars – big businesses also protecting their own bottom line – are refusing to budge. It’s a face-off.

Bottom of the food chain

Those that suffer are those at the bottom of the food chain: the smaller producers, small farmers, logistic workers and so on, who all face the bosses’ squeeze. And customers – who miss out on the much-lauded ‘consumer choice’ that the profit system is supposed to offer. Not that there is much choice when the determining factor is what you can afford.

44% of adults surveyed by the Office for National Statistics are buying less food, up from 18% at the beginning of the year. The volume of food sales is also down 1.6%, while shoppers are switching to cheaper own brand products, sales of which are up 12%. Asda boss Stuart Rose has talked in the press about some shoppers setting £30 budgets, after which they don’t put further items through the checkout.

But workers can’t rely on the likes of Tesco bosses to keep food prices in check. They will always put their own profits first. This is also why Tesco keeps most of its own workforce on poverty pay which, at £10.10 an hour, is just 60p an hour above the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Tesco made £2.56 billion operating profits in 2021.

Instead, we need to open the books of the big supermarkets and food manufacturers, to show us where the money is really going. On that basis, democratically elected committees representing workers in those industries, but also the wider working class, could determine a price reflective of the real costs of production, including ensuring workers throughout the supply chain get paid a decent wage. Any companies refusing to comply with such decisions should be seized and brought into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control and management, with compensation for small shareholders only on the basis of proven need. Publicly owned and democratically controlled, the food industry could be run not to line the pockets of the super-rich, but to provide the goods we all need to survive at a price we can afford.