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Is the British food renaissance over?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 16:38 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

This week The Food Programme investigates whether the UK’s good food bubble has burst. On paper it doesn’t look good: sales of organic food in supermarkets down by almost 6% in 2010, the average cost of a trolley of food up 4.7 per cent from March to April and a £780 drop in disposable incomes this year and next, and so it goes on… Evidence that recent positive changes to our food habits are being reversed. So will quality food shrink to become just another little luxury for that top 1% of the population who are thriving in these tough times? 

The recent fourth Real Food Festival in London’s Olympia seemed like a good place to find out - 300 stallholders selling what the organisers called ‘real food’, from all over the country. Would it be a requiem or something a bit cheerier? One of the first people I talked to was Jonathan Burrough from Peradon Farm in Devon. He and his wife sell organic meat direct. They set up in January 2009 and have built up from a turnover of £400 a month to £10,000. He says, “People tell us, ‘it’s not like it was’, but we don’t know how it was - we’ve just managed to grow and grow and grow. The disposable pound isn’t what it was, but people like quality. ” 

Meat stall at Real Food Festival


Geoff Sayer of the Well Hung Meat Company, also in Devon, but longer established, had a similar story of steady growth based on that taste for quality - something, he said, his customers are willing to make a priority – rather than, say cars or holidays.

The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, which had a big stall at the festival, was set up in the immediate wake of the recession to be a training ground for the quality food movement. Like Peradon Farm, they’re thriving. Riverford Farm, the big beast in the veg box business, has seen its sales rise 5% this year after two years of decline. Founder Guy Watson says the recession has cleared out the weak players: “the ones who are doing well are those with good products, not trendy foods… Organic isn’t enough, it has to taste good and be well priced.”
There were very few tales of woe. So what does it all mean? At the festival I chaired a debate on the state of the British good food industry with a mixed audience of public and stallholders. The panel was made up of market researcher Giles Quick who’s been following retail food sales for 25 years, businessman and organic farmer William Kendall, supermarket adviser and fruit farmer Teresa Wickham and Andrew Opie of the supermarket-funded British Retail Consortium. Listen to the show to hear what they said, and tell us what you think: are we moving back to the dark ages of cheap food at any price? Or are changes in our buying, cooking and eating habits more deep-set than that? How have your food buying habits changed in the past few years?

Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    My own experience of starting a business selling a premium food product during these hard times suggests that consumers appreciate quality, even though they are having to make compromises due to having a smaller disposable income.

    As small producers, we have to look at innovative ways of getting our products to the consumer rather than simply hoping that they will come to us. As an example, many now use social media to promote their businesses and to interact with customers and prospective customers.

    With my own business, I decided to take my cakes directly to the customer and have established a cake delivery round in Derby delivering individual slices of hand made cake to offices. Working in a similar way to a sandwich delivery business, but calling at each office once a week - I have had a very positive response and my customers now look forward to their "once a week treat".

    If the product is good, the price is right and you are prepared to graft I believe the small producer has a good chance of thriving in these difficult conditions.

  • Comment number 2.

    I did notice that the Real Food Festival this year seemed far smaller than last year's event. So perhaps those who are feeling the pinch just weren't there to be interviewed?

  • Comment number 3.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 4.

    As the organiser of the Real Food Festival I am really looking forward to listening to this programme. My overall sense is of cautious optimism - although the so called good/real food bubble is really only a blip when you look at the overall retail food market, what has been achieved is considerable when you consider the forces lined up against it.
    For 50 years or more the UK consumer has been told that there is nothing wrong with cheap food so its hardly any surprise that the majority of the population make food buying decisions based on a perception of price (and in many cases it simply is just that, a perception; but powerful marketing and clever retail design can convince even the most aware of us of things that are just not true).
    When you have giant corporations who many people believe are selling inherently unhealthy products on the back of massive marketing campaigns being put at the heart of government policy on obesity and when you have government agencies promoting the fact that all food, however it is produced is basically the same, it is staggering how many people are seeing things differently.
    Unfortunately, the pace of change is far too slow. Whilst the public health timebomb of diet related illness continues to drive a growing industry of products and services created to derive economic benefit from it and whilst a handful of global corporations dictate the agenda in terms of government policy, marketing and retail distribution the real food bubble is simply floating on an ocean of fetid water.
    What is exciting is that so many of the small producers at our event have similar stories to those that Sheila has already identified. There is no question that once people are engaged by good food and start to understand the benefits of taste and health and once the are reconnected back to where their food comes from they become positively energised and start to make very different decisions about what food they are prepared to put into their bodies.
    If just 10% of the resources available to big business was in the hands of those who wish to promote this real food bubble, it would very quickly become a torrent because the arguments for it are simply so compelling. Faced with extremely powerful adversaries peddling a very different agenda, it is difficult to see how the real food movement can gain effective critical mass as simply a ground-up movement and until we can get our government to step in and create just a little more of a level playing field, the health of this nation looks very bleak.

  • Comment number 5.

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  • Comment number 6.

    We run an organic farm in Suffolk which sells all of its produce to local custmers and our sales have only grown in the years since the financial bubble burst. Having run a number of larger branded food businesses I know that you have to be very careful about believing the figures that the research houses put out. They rely very heavily on data captured in the supermarkets. This is fine for established products in established sectors but can heavily underestimate sales in more embryonic areas. These embryos can develop into significant sizes long before their true scale is picked up by the researchers. Based on our own farm results and my observations, I suspect that many more people have used the financial crisis to look for good food direct from source rather than pay the premium charged by the supermarkets for their so-called convenience. As has been mentioned there is no particular need to pay much more for high quality, organic food if you buy off the producer or local shops. With their stranglehold on the best sites, it will take a long time for a significant departure from supermarket shopping to be noticeable but there is a growing realisation amongst the growing numbers of good food shoppers that, with few exceptions, supermarkets are not the obvious place to look for much of the best food.

  • Comment number 7.

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