For now...

I've finally finished consolidating the posts on this blog. Rather than delete them all, I've left a few of my favourites, and a few that solicited the most colourful responses. The rest have gone. Click on the labels (to the right) to read the remaining posts by topic.

Crest of a wave... And I'm not talking about surfing!

If you bought the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, you'll have received a booklet, "real (food) handbook". Whilst animal vegetable mineral didn't get a specific mention, the booklet brought a smile to my face, starting with the title.

Whilst I hold no illusions (nor delusions) that Project Editor and blogger (elegant sufficiency) Stephanie Wood intended this as a tribute to me, I thought it cute owing to my (currently neglected) blog's title, get real! addressing many of my concerns when I started avm about the food we eat. Whilst some of this is slowly transferring into the avm site, if you're interested at my rants you can look at them here.

More importantly however, the booklet is an important acknowledgment of a trend occurring across the world, although Australians have been slow on the uptake - a possible complacency owing to our rich agricultural history. That trend is about getting back to basics with how we feed ourselves - sourcing and eating fresh foods - unprocessed, unadulterated. The proliferation of farmers' markets, chefs increasingly becoming involved in the cultivation of produce, the slow food movement, seed savers, perma-culture and balcony gardening, and concepts such as ethicurean, organic and SOLE are all a part of this change.

And this is exactly what I, and animal vegetable mineral as its vehicle, am on about!

The business models of our two national supermarket chains are unsustainable. The "fresh food people" aren't and quite frankly, "getting better every day" isn't good enough! Not everyone can or has the inclination to rear inner city chooks, grow a box of fruit and veg on their balcony and eat pork from Uncle Jim's farm, but what we can do, is pool our collective spend and eat great, fresh produce with flavour and variety affordably. And this is what animal vegetable mineraldoes.

The great thing is, that becoming an informed consumer and making sustainable choices doesn't have to come with the discomfort of hessian sack underwear! It can be enjoyable as long as we approach it that way. And that's what I'm trying to do - with great produce, tips and hints, meal makers and little helpers along the way.

"Skye Gyngell says it's hard to cook badly when you use good produce."

Once you hook in to a supply of good meat, veg, seafood, fruit, breads, poultry you realise how little you need to do with it - it taste's great on its own! Not to mention the health benefits of eating this way - since I began the business in concept I have barely had a sniffle - I haven't even been visited by my annual winter bronchial cough! And this is coming from someone that ate pretty well (as long as we were organised) in the first place.

So there you have it - by shopping with avm you're a trend setter, and you didn't even know it! Furthermore, it's come at an everyday price and you're benefiting from it. Now is the time to share the love. Whether it's healthy food, tasty food or just plain old convenience you and your friends are after, spread the word... we can't all do it on our own, but we can change the way we live if we so chose.

Happy eating,

Grocery inquiry

I'm late off the mark in writing about the outcome of the federal government/ACCC grocery inquiry but I've been so entertained by the ensuing knee-jerk reactions that I've held off writing anything (some links below for your reference).

In my opinion the inquiry was never going to find anything of much consequence from the outset. The Issues Paper released to guide public submissions ensured the inquiry would deal with only the bright glossy sheen of the fluorescent supermarket signage, perhaps giving it a dust and polish on the way.

My submission was prefaced as follows.
I actually think the ACCC is barking up the wrong tree. Grocery prices will continue to increase. For some time I suspect they will increase (in Australia at least) at a greater rate than CPI as other consumer goods have become cheaper through technology and production advancements in developing countries and because we have a low cost high standard of living for a very long time and as the marketplace continues along the pathway of globalisation, our economy will continue to align with those we aspire to compare to.

The ACCC was asked to look into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries.

Matters to be taken into consideration by the inquiry shall include, but not be restricted to:
  • the current structure of the grocery industry at the supply, wholesale and retail levels including mergers and acquisitions by the national retailers
  • the nature of competition at the supply, wholesale and retail levels of the grocery industry
  • the competitive position of small and independent retailers
  • the pricing practices of the national grocery retailers and the representation of grocery prices to consumers
  • factors influencing the pricing on inputs along the supply chain for standard grocery lines
  • any impediments to efficient pricing of inputs along the supply chain, and
  • the effectiveness of the Horticulture Code of Conduct, and whether the inclusion of other major buyers such as retailers would improve the effectiveness of the code.
Unfortunately when it comes to competition, the horse has bolted. The rationalisation of supermarket chains that occurred during the 1990s virtually resulted in a grocery duopoly. Certainly there are some exceptions, Franklins still exists in some limited form (albeit after Woolworths plucked the meat off the bones), there are the IGA "independents" and it turns out that 50%* of fresh produce goes to the independent and alternate retailers (as opposed to the 70%* stranglehold the major supermarket chains have on the rest).
*These figures don't add up if you look at the ABS domestic spend in this category, the turnover of the major players and the profit margins they achieve.

The supply chain issues were addressed by looking at the "horizontal markets" along the "vertical market" to ensure there was competition there. Anybody that has spent 2 days in supply chain management will tell you that this silo approach was deemed ineffective over a decade ago; instead of looking at how a supermarket could influence throughout a web of ancillary markets, the ACCC looked at each market (agriculture, manufacture, transport, etc.) in isolation.

The result of the inquiry? A 302 page document plus table of contents, appendices, transcript and excerpts from "confidential hearings". The outcome, steered by the issues list, is predictable.

The report addresses farm gate conspiracy theories and examines external influences over the price of groceries over the past 7 years, finding the latter has more to do with grocery prices. The findings of the report are summarised (without theatrics) in At last, the truth about the great grocery myths.

Ironically the report deemed that small independent grocers, perform a role akin to the now defunct Democrats (keep the bastards honest) however are less competitive as they are largely restricted to sourcing from Metcash (wholesaler) who in turn, was limited in purchasing power as it competes directly with the major supermarket chains (*ahem*).

Planning and development regulations and restrictive retail leases preclude competition launching in the marketplace (*ahem* horse? bolted? gate? anyone? Bueller?).

In regard to leases, developers are required to offer exclusivity to the major supermarket chains in order for them to commit to taking up residency in a developer's complex, and a major player is required to get shopping traffic.

The irony in regard to the findings on planning and development is that the major supermarket chains have enough money to make the laws suit them. Planning, ostensibly controlled at a local government level, is frequently (in New South Wales at least) hijacked by the state government, notably Frank Sartor, Minister for Planning and the Environment and ensuring the NSW Labor Party's coffers are suitably lined with developer dollars.

And finally, it's agreed that unit pricing is the way ahead.

The expertise of the ACCC, in its own words, "lies in consumer protection, competition, regulation and industry analysis," yet the scope of the inquiry was limited to the competitiveness of retail grocery prices. It seems to me the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs has missed an opportunity to look at the influence the major supermarket chains have over consumers and consumer behaviour, and instead has focused on academic market economics.

Sadly, focusing attention on horizontal competition in a vertical marketplace, and tracing the product to market of 8 specific products (of the thousands of unique category items (SKU) carried), is nothing more than an academic exercise. But then, what is the government to do when they are given the kitty for a two horse race?

Readers of this blog know I hold the two major Australian supermarket chains in contempt. Perhaps you think that it's my vested interest to put them down? The truth however is, that my interest in grocery retailing has developed from (a) a love of food, (b) ongoing discontent with the supermarket offerings in Australia (particularly after returning from living in the UK at the start of this decade) and (c) professional experience within the walls of these establishments.

Supermarkets have an undeniable role in our society. We live in clustered communities, we don't all grow vegetables (heck, my thumbs are as brown as they come!) and we don't all want to knit our own toilet paper.

I do however object to them exercising power above the law that applies to regular people and I am mesmerised by the mismatch between the messages they convey to the public and the cold hard reality of what they do in practice. ow do they get away with calling themselves "fresh food people" when even an apple can be 8 months old and an egg 5 weeks old?

Sadly we live in a society that is fat, self-indulgent and oblivious to what we are eating. Supermarkets aren't solely responsible for this, but they play an important role. The promotion of products (in partnership with manufacturers), the wasted food, the standardisation of "fresh" produce, and the complete waste of resources in air conditioning, refrigeration and transport are cause for concern as they are in the public interest such is there impact on our health system and our environment.

At the end of the day, we will all pay for this perceived convenience.

A few of the many articles written about the inquiry over the past few days:

Star struck

Does anybody remember reading "The Celestine Prophecy"? It came out over 10 years ago so even if you have early-onset oldtimers you should still have it in the recesses of your mind. The "Da Vinci Code" of its day, one of the key factors is "unexplained coincidences".

Whilst a work of fantasy, the book hit a note with many as it pushed the boundaries of conventional spirituality without defying them and explored notions often considered a bit "out there" despite some of the world's major religions acknowledging spirits, multiple dimensions and resonance, and the scientific discovery (mathematical proof) of worm holes.

Only recently I heard a piece on the radio about gut instinct and decision making, with top level executives cited as relying on gut instinct and that gut instinct decisions are frequently good and sound, based on information the subconscience gathers over a life time of experience and perhaps primordial wiring. I've tried to find the reference but a search on auntie only sends me to a similar discussion with Dr Norman Swan 10 years ago - clearly this isn't a new line of thinking.

On a personal level I find gut instinct a little confusing. The scientist in me is analytical and factual, wanting to weigh up the pros and cons. The legal eagle in me finds various angles and more often than not I am able to argue alternate sides to an argument, which tends to moderate my passion. Tangled in all of this is a further contradiction - my gut instinct. I frequently put this aside except where I have little to rely on in the facts, angles and arguments department.

Every now and again however, I get "awful feelings" in the same way that if my mother says she has "awful news" it's most probably of the mortal kind. These feelings are not premonitions, rather an ominous sense of foreboding sinks in. After my brother was in a car accident following one of these, I vowed I would not ignore my gut instinct.

10 days ago I talked myself out of a gut instinct - that I didn't know the person in question well enough, that I was over-reacting, and that I was imputing my emotions onto their circumstances. Sure enough, following the weekend, I discovered this person had fractured 2 vertebrae slipping over AND had been in hospital for 5 days as a result. I jumped in the car and headed to the hospital to pay a visit.

When I arrived my first thought was how wonderful the food from the hospital cafe smelled. My friend C had another friend with him, and she had brought him lunch. And then I realised this was not just any lunch, this was lunch from her restaurant, Bird Cow Fish.

I've previously mentioned Bird Cow Fish has long been my favourite Sydney Bistro. I admire Alex Herbert's approach to food and dining, not Haute Cuisine but excellent nonetheless (more on this another time). With her spunky husband (I can say that as I have my own) running front of house with some of the loveliest service staff in Sydney, I am a fan. Perhaps even more so because despite having two children (I've seen them at the restaurant) she still manages to get out to Flemington to chat with the growers and stallholders - I've seen her there, and wanted to say hello, but thought it was just a bit too weird even for me.

As I know all this (and more) about Alex, I felt conscious of appearing a sycophant. After all, I had come to visit an injured friend and just happened to be partaking in a conversation with someone I have admired from a distance for some time. With 2 chefs (C is a chef too) and little old me gathered around, much of the conversation focused on food and produce - from beef cheeks to churning butter, as well as sailing (C is also a sailor), dogs' names and anything else that amuses people in a hospital bed on loads of diazapam and a cheeky glass of kiwi pinot with lunch (C is also a kiwi). Despite the circumstances, it was kinda fun.

Later that day it occurred to me that perhaps there's an extra element to Bird Cow Fish and Alex's cooking that makes it so endearing for me. You see, despite C being a chef and the hospital being in a pretty hip dining area of Sydney where many of C's friends and contemporaries are based, Alex was the first to bring a meal in for him. She's obviously thoughtful, and emotion invariably adds an extra dimension to food for the sensitive soul.

Australians - world record holders through and through!

In May 2006 an obesity summit in Brisbane warned that Australia could overtake USA in the obesity stakes within a decade.1

By November 1997 a report released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) singled Australia out for the country's sky-rocketing obesity rate. Australia had the fifth highest adult obesity rate, 21.7 per cent, behind the US, 32.2 per cent, Mexico, 30.2 per cent, the UK, 23 per cent, and Greece, 21.9 per cent. Australians were reported to be gaining weight even faster than people in the US, a notoriously fat nation.2

By 20th June 2008 Australia was crowned the world’s fattest nation with more than 9 million adults now rated as obese or overweight. Our so-called “fat bomb” is ticking loudly, with 72% of middle-aged males and 58% of middle-aged females overweight or obese.3

This is one "world title" we have much to be embarrassed about.

In Australia the the weather is often glorious, and to the European world we are seen as a sporty outdoor culture.

Our fresh produce is considered some of the best in the world - our beef and tuna earn top dollar on the Japanese markets, our fruits are air-freighted to asia's wealthy. Our geographical isolation our products are free of disease that blights other markets (anthrax, foot and mouth, etc.).

Despite being at the mercy of drought (and in fact this is what lead to the discovery of the el nino and la nina affect by Australian scientists) there is never a shortage of good food.

The equation is simple: (calories in) - (calories out) = (weight gain).

Overlooking the complications of metabolism, medication affecting physiological processes, the complication with respect to calories is consumed is that apparently people don't know what they are eating. Seems a little ridiculous when they're not bound and blindfolded for force-feeding, yet, as Jamie Oliver pointed out on Australian television last week, the contents of foods has changed and somewhere along the line people forgot to notice and think about it.

Currently our politicians and public service are intent on launching inquiries resulting in bureaucratic guidelines for advertising time slots and land development by foreign entities. Do you think this might be missing the point?

What is the point of having an inquiry into grocery prices and competition when the 2 major players in the market (controlling 80-90% of the spend depending on which statistics you read) barely even sell fresh food. What Australia might actually need is LESS VARIETY and LESS CHOICE - I mean really, do we need 85 different pasta & rice convenience side dishiz? And yes, there are 85 listed on colesonline!!!

Do we address advertising fast foods and snacks during children's viewing hours (do we even know what they are) or should we consider reaching beyond that and address the people that actually purchase the products for the children - yes, you know, the parents that have managed to was their hands of responsibility?

I understand that people are busy and under pressure, that children take up an enormous amount of time and effort (and Costello's baby bonus won't cover it), but I can't fathom why a family with 2 young children using a home grocery service will only buy 28 serves of fruit (enough for 2 people) and a $5 stir-fry pack (that hubby and I would get through in a night) for the week. I want to think that perhaps they'll do a supplementary shop, perhaps they were going away, but I know even still, that this family is not eating what they should be.

What do you think is the decision making factor that needs to be address in order for people to eat more fresh food?