Monday, September 01, 2008

The National Consumer Council on supermarkets

The new National Consumer Council (NCC) report on supermarkets has a fatal contradiction at its heart.

It spends a lot of time discussing the amount of information offered to consumers. The NCC want more and clearer labelling setting out the amount of salt, sugar, fat and other unhealthy things in each product. That is a reasonable thing to lobby for and if you look at the report cards you'll see that most of the supermarkets are making progress in the area - either in their colour codes on the front or in the GDAs on the back.

The negative headline on the report comes from their other priority, which is that supermarkets should stop making unhealthy products generally alluring. For that reason, they are opposed to promotions for unhealthy products and stores that stock sweets at the counter. Many of the shops are doing worse on that measure. They keep having the temerity to offer me half price Coke and offer sweets at the till.

That is where the contradiction appears. If you think that labelling is important then you are assuming that people are good at making decisions about the kind of food they eat. That they care about their health and, if properly informed, know how to eat healthily. Or, you think that people should be free to decide for themselves how important healthy eating is to them. That's why you value giving them information, it allows them to make as much use of their remarkable ability to decide for themselves as possible.

By contrast, if you think that having sweets at the counter, or offering people discounts, will cause them to want things they shouldn't, and we should intervene to stop that happening, then you don't really respect their ability to decide for themselves at all. You think they're simpletons who can't possibly decide for themselves or are so pathetically vulnerable to pester power that they will be terrorised unless you hide the jelly babies in the corner. When Sainsburys take a pound off the price of my Coke they make me worse off.

The report tries to take both positions.

Despite this report being a mish-mash of contradictions and dismal, patronising paternalism I paid for it, so did you. It's a quango. Just like the equally awful energywatch. Why can't these bodies be scrapped? If anyone really wants this bilge to be produced they can fund it themselves

The Daily Mash calls the report just right:

"BRITAIN'S supermarkets were last night accused of stocking the products their customers want to buy.

The National Consumer Council claimed the stores are deliberately selling a range of items that are not only competitively priced but tasted lovely.

"Meanwhile they go around filling their fruit and veg aisles with thousands of deadly scorpions. Probably."

A spokesman for Asda said: "The National Consumer Council seems to have confused us with something that is not a business."

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