Cheap food, hidden costs – supermarkets have it all. By Sam Gordon

Have you been shopping recently? Where did you get your food? From the baker, the butcher or the greengrocer? Or did you simply go to the supermarket? The world of shopping has been revolutionised by supermarkets. But is it all good?

The concept of “supermarkets” was developed in the USA. The first supermarket opened in New York in 1930 and was called King Kullen (named after King Kong). The store’s motto was, “Pile it high. Sell it low.” The idea caught on quickly and now there’s a supermarket on almost every street corner.

And that’s no surprise. After all supermarkets offer a lot of benefits. We no longer have to walk up and down the high street to get our weekly supplies – we can do it all in one place. And that place is often open 12 hours a day. There’s greater choice too with some supermarkets offering up to 40,000 different products. So it seems that everyone’s a winner. But as always – it’s not quite that simple.

Actually, many of the things that make supermarkets so appealing come with hidden costs – if not for us, then for someone else. For example supermarkets are now so powerful that they can more or less decide what they want to pay their suppliers. That can have a devastating effect on farmers and other producers. Basically, supermarkets pay what they want and many small producers have gone out of business.

Local shops can suffer too. In smaller towns where supermarkets open, local stores are often driven out of business because they cannot compete on price. In the UK, Tesco (the largest chain) controls 30% of the market alone. In 2006, the town of Inverness in Scotland was branded “Tescotown” because more than 50% of every £1 spent on food was spent in one of its stores. The situation has become so serious that many people now launch campaigns to stop supermarkets from opening in their towns.

Many people also worry about where the food comes from. Supermarkets claim to buy lots of their fresh produce from local suppliers. But even if they do, it will probably make a journey of hundreds of miles via packing plants and distribution centres. Sometimes it’s much farther than that. Some surveys have shown that even in the height of the UK apple season, many supermarkets import more than half of their apples from far-flung places. The “fresh” fruit is picked, packed, frozen, flown, defrosted and distributed before it reaches the shelves.

And all of this is damaging the environment, too. A recent report suggests that the food industry is responsible for a third of all greenhouse emissions. Transportation plays a major role because supermarkets often import food from great distances, and this adds more to their carbon footprint. And what about those huge fridges and freezers humming away all day and night? In fact, surveys have shown that one supermarket emits more CO2 than 60 small shops and greengrocers combined.

There’s no doubt that supermarkets have changed the way we shop, but are we paying too much after all?

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