25 November 2004

S2M-2056 Food (Supermarkets)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 25 November 2004

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

Food (Supermarkets)

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2056, in the name of Shiona Baird, on supermarkets and the Scottish food chain, and three amendments to the motion.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I will begin by posing a few questions. Instead of going to the fridge in the morning for my milk, should I walk a mile down the road to the field and personally milk the cow, a task for which, having never tried it, I am ill-fitted?

Christine May: Is there something that the member has not done?

Stewart Stevenson: I always start with confessions, because it might get the audience on my side.

Should I drink that milk unpasteurised? Should I really go back to basics and drink the milk from a cow that has not been tuberculin tested? Not even the Greens are suggesting that we roll the clock back that much. I see that my colleagues are also relieved about that.

We all accept that processing food has benefits for public safety and convenience. As a result, I hope that no one in the debate yearns for a return to subsistence farming and only local production and consumption. The world is simply not like that.

That said, we need to have some view of the world that we want before we can decide on the nostrums that will deliver it. I believe that people want one-stop shopping, and we have proven that by going to the places where such shopping is easy. They want decent quality and make discriminating choices both between supermarkets and between supermarkets and other alternatives.

Increasingly, people want year-round availability. When I was a bairn, fruit and vegetables were seasonal, but consumers no longer want such seasonality. They also want convenient products that free up personal time, which is why pre-prepared food dominates so many of our supermarket shelves. In fact, such a concept is not particularly new: the Cornish pasty is a convenience food that the worker used to take to the field. It was designed particularly for that purpose, with a crust that the worker's grubby hand could hold while he ate the rest of it.

Consumers want free parking, but they also want fewer supermarkets. We have to try to resolve the contradictions in what the public want.

Shiona Baird: The member's Cornish pasty would have been home-made from fresh ingredients. Does the member agree that, in that regard, there would be a significant difference between the nutritional benefits of what is being offered for sale now and those of the food that was eaten then?

Stewart Stevenson: I suspect that there were Cornish pasties that could poison people and Cornish pasties that would be excellent for them. There is merit in having consistency in delivered products and a processing system that supports public safety. That said, the supermarkets are not free from criticism.

Although supermarkets dominate the market, the biggest buyer is the Government. As Richard Lochhead has advocated in the SNP amendment, the Government not only has a role in drawing the supermarkets into a debate in the hope that we might bang heads together for the benefit of consumers, producers and our communities but should be doing more to support our primary producers.

In that respect, I make no apology for returning to the subject of pork. Although our welfare standards for pork production are incredibly high, standards in the rest of the EU—the free market within which we operate—are not so high. What happens? Because produce is cheaper in other countries, the Government and others buy from there. The Government needs to address that matter.

My constituency contains primary producers and producers of processed foods, both of which are important to my constituents. Indeed, most of the salmon, beef and chicken in supermarkets comes from factories in my constituency. It is a shame that people cannot always tell that that is the case. One would have to know the three-digit code on a Tesco label that identifies the supplier. I hope that, when the Government speaks to the supermarkets, it persuades them to break the code to let us find out which produce is local.

It would also be worth discussing the issue of transport with the supermarkets. Although the Tesco supermarket in Fraserburgh sells fish that is caught and landed in the north-east, that fish has come via the north-east of England. It does not even use local suppliers.

We have free choice. When I go to my local butcher, John Stewart—I will give him a name check, because he is worth it—he tells me which field the beef has come from. The meat is also cheaper than it is at Tesco. I have—and I make—that choice. However, supermarkets have many advantages, particularly with regard to business rates, and I invite the minister to tell us what he plans to do about that.

I am happy to support Richard Lochhead's amendment.


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