3 good reasons to buy British lamb – so why ship it from New Zealand?

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I can’t imagine Easter without a slow-roast leg of lamb. As crucial as a Cadbury’s Creme Egg. The tradition comes from the Old Testament, but this year there is a more contemporary reason to buy lamb: British sheep farmers need our support. After a season of terrible prices, they are now trudging through a second winter, in the middle of lambing. On Tuesday a Cumbria farmer told BBC Radio 4 of having to dig pregnant ewes out of snow drifts and of many new-born lambs dying from hypothermia. “Buy our lamb to help us through this,” Alistair Mackintosh pleaded.

So I went shopping. But there was no British lamb at all in the Co-op, only the stuff that’s shipped frozen from New Zealand. At Waitrose – a shop that loves to boast of its “commitment to British farmers” – there were a few bits of Welsh lamb (I live in Scotland) on the meat counter but the fridge was filled with Kiwi sheep, too.

Waitrose’s rack of New Zealand lamb – the luscious section of upper ribs and fillet – was priced at an amazing £30.99 a kilo – £10 more than the Welsh. British sheepfarmers were recently getting not much more than that for the whole animal. For the shops, the best thing about lamb at Easter and Passover is the fact that you can make so much money from it.

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Tesco vs Sherborne – can the big guy afford to blink?

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Extended version of my story  “Tesco, not in our backyard”,  published in the Times 19 March 2013.  Comments below.

The lady from Tesco is having a horrible day. She’s driven from Bristol – leaving a sick toddler behind – to the little Dorset town of Sherborne where, frankly, almost everybody hates her. Her job is to sell the idea of a new Tesco store to a community that doesn’t want it, at a time when Tesco – according to a recent Which? magazine-  is by far the most unpopular supermarket in Britain. And the survey was done was before horseburgergate.

They don’t look aggressive, the townsfolk who’ve marched up the famously charming high street to Digby Hall, where Tesco is staging a presentation, “Investing in Sherborne”. There’s a preponderance of tweed and country jacket green; some dreadlocks but more trim hair-dos. The protest posters are decorous against the honey-coloured stone – there’s a “No Thanks Tesco” made of buttons and embroidery in Tesco colours. The rudest slogan asks the supermarket chain to “burger off”. “It’s just like Les Miserables,” someone laughs – but it is actually a very English affair.

There is a TV crew and local celebrities: Valerie Singleton, journalist, once of Blue Peter, and Canon Eric Woods, vicar of Sherborne Abbey. He is impressive in red-buttoned, ankle-length black robes. He says that Tesco is just wrong for a town like Sherborne, and won’t do any good. “You’d be amazed at this stereotype of supermarkets being cheaper. It’s just not true. Our local butcher is cheaper: I should know, on a parson’s stipend you have got to be canny.” Most of the attention goes to the anti-Tesco pony, a live one, led by a former BBC journalist.

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Minimum alcohol pricing: get drunk for 85p

Published in the Times  (UK), March 29 2012

Update, March 13 2013 – big surprise, a year on. David Cameron’s pledge to address the “scandal of the 20p pint”  is abandoned, following a ministerial revolt.

I once invited a drinks industry spokesman for a Saturday evening out in Edinburgh. I thought he should sample some of our fine pubs, ending the evening al fresco on Cowgate or at the top of Leith Walk where we might watch the drink-fuddled teenagers fight, weep and vomit in the gutters.

We could ponder just what contribution cheap booze is making to Britain’s rocketing liver disease rates. After all, he had worked tirelessly to keep the price of young people’s alcohol as low as possible — lower than certain mineral waters, cheaper than milk. I must have phrased the invite poorly: he never replied.

Last week the spokesman and the rest of the alcohol trade had a small setback when George Osborne in the Budget overruled the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and announced that the minimum price of alcohol would be set at 40p a unit — which would set the base price for a bottle of red wine at £3.75 and a pint of normal beer around 85p. So not so harsh. Alcohol abuse campaigners had been calling for 45p or 50p a unit — Osborne could have really punished the trade if he’d made them increase the price and then taken the surplus as duty.
Instead, analysts predict the forced price rise will earn the industry £810 million a year, and cost next to nothing in sales (it would add just £21 a year to the average household budget). Nevertheless, the industry sent out its PR people in force to protest: the proposal, they said, was an unfair restriction on the right to trade (which will be pursued in the European courts) and, more absurdly, an assault on the “ordinary, sensible drinker” — that’s all those ordinary people who like to buy red wine for less than £3.75 a bottle. Continue reading