Prices and provenance

Pass the butter please – if you’re lucky enough to have any. Now that we’ve all accepted that butter is no longer a fast track to an early grave it has somehow become a luxury item.  How ironic is that?

I, slightly tongue in cheek, blame the rise of the ‘flat white’ coffee but, in reality, it’s the fact that dairy farmers have been so badly treated that production has dropped to a level where there simply isn’t enough milk swilling around to make butter and cream. It takes twenty litres of whole milk to make a kg of butter so it’s always the last on the list – because it’s the least profitable.

The result is that bulk butter (conventional and organic) has gone through the roof and for once we can’t blame Brexit. Rather shamefully, we use a lot of butter in the kitchen. The sweet pastry, rough puff and short crust is all butter and the pasty pastry is 50%. Virtually all the cakes and tarts are heavy on butter as well.

Like most producers, we’ve been burying our heads in the sand and hoping it will go away – which is pretty pathetic as I first heard it on the Today programme and in the Guardian at the beginning of July.

It hasn’t, so now with mince pie time just around the corner, we’re having to reboot the mainframe and update the spreadsheets. It’s looking as though the mince pies are going to have to go up by about 30p a box. Sorry.

Since the realities of the dreaded day last June started kicking in we’ve got used to pricing from every invoice (rather than price lists) and a day rarely goes by without hitting the feared ‘batch price pending’ button on our till system. Right now, we’re not only working out what to do about the above mentioned butter but also beef.

Farm gate organic beef prices have risen by around 20% this year (not because of Brexit) and they’re showing no signs of stabilising, so we have to address that too. Personally, I don’t get that upset about high meat prices – in fact I think I’d vote for a tax on meat. But from the customers’ perspective we understand that it hurts. So sorry again.

While I hate putting prices up, I do believe that paying a bit more for higher welfare and production standards is worth it, and the latest dirty meat scandal from Tesco’s fake farm reinforces this once again.

I’d like to think that this week’s Two Sisters news hasn’t taken any of you by surprise – it’s another nail in the coffin of the mega beast that won’t die.

My view on Tesco’s fake farm has been that it was so improbable that all their chicken could come from one farmer that it didn’t really amount to a serious attempt to mislead. I could, of course, be wrong.

But to find out that Willow Farm was actually a very real receptacle for Lidl’s leftovers is hilarious – and surprising even to me. I thought Tesco was further up the food chain!
And can anyone explain the Two Sister lawyers’ statement? “The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not.” It would appear that here is a brand with absolutely no assets, value or standards whatsoever.

I’m sure both Tesco and Two Sisters will survive. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last, but maybe a few more will realise that cheap food has a hidden cost. Provenance, and as recent events have shown, proven provenance, really should mean something.