Parsley saga

Food - Bee Wilson investigates the commodification of vegetables

I recently bought a bunch of flat-leaf parsley from my local fruit and vegetable market. It weighed about 220 grams and cost 60p. I've kept it in a glass of water on a kitchen ledge and it has so far lasted four days, during which time it has improved numerous dishes: an omelette, a stock, a bowl of farfalle with tuna and capers, some tiny meatballs, and mushrooms in cream sauce. The last of it will be chopped into a deep-green tabbouleh for tomorrow's supper, with any remnants going in a snail butter to keep in the freezer.

So far so boring. The only point of this parsley saga is that to have bought the same, banal quantity of herb from Sainsbury's would have cost me an unfathomable £7.59 (69p for 20g multiplied by 11). How can this be so? Fresh greengrocer goods sold in supermarkets have become shockingly expensive. It used to be thought that processed, ready-made foods were the expensive ones and that fresh "ingredients" for cooking were cheap. Not any more. Cooking vegetables is now a middle-class pursuit, taxed in exorbitant mark-ups. The fact that there is so little protest about the prices charged is perhaps the most shocking thing of all.

Healthy eating brochures doled out in NHS doctors' surgeries extol the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables. The clinching argument is usually that vegetables are such good value. But if you shop at supermarkets, with the exception of tinned tomatoes, sugared canned beans and insecticide-ridden carrots, this just isn't true. You can buy turkey to feed four for less than sprouting broccoli to feed two. As a modest test case, I bought a large basket of things from the fruit and vegetable market I'm lucky enough to live near, for comparison with supermarket prices. As well as the parsley, I got four thick bulbs of fennel, two punnets of strawberries, two cucumbers, three long curling sweet red peppers, one head of celery, four large field mushrooms, about 600g ripe red tomatoes on the vine, a bag of peppery watercress and a huge head of bitter frilly endive. For this, I paid £7.79. The equivalent basket at Tesco would have cost me £15.90. At Sainsbury's, it would have cost £22.08.

A customer services representative at Tesco tells me that the discrepancy is down to "quality". I can't see how. The market produce was consistently flavourful and fresh, and more varied than what you get in superstores. In fact, I wouldn't have been able to get my lovely endive salad at Tesco: my price calculations were based on substituting ridiculous lollo rosso (99p), the nearest equivalent they stocked. Perhaps by "quality" they mean packaging. At my nearest Tesco, the only way you can buy bulbs of fennel is wrapped in individual clingfilm as if they were precious gems, and priced at £1.19 each. Thus to buy four fennel packages would cost £4.76, three times as much as the variegated market kind.

What is effectively going on is the commodification of vegetables. More and more items are greedily rounded up to 99p, a price which, in the crazy context of supermarkets, appears cheap. I ask a Sainsbury's representative how the shop prices its fresh foods. He tells me that "it wouldn't be done based on local market prices". He adds, as a complacent afterthought: "We would do it oblivious to everyone around us." Another factor mentioned by customer services at both Tesco and Sainsbury's is the expense of airfreighting foreign produce. "The stuff from abroad puts the prices up," says a woman at Tesco. So why not replace Kenya fine beans with runner beans grown in Norfolk? "Oh no," says the man at Sainsbury's, who agrees that local produce is "cheaper". "I can't see why we'd want to sell local fruit and veg."

Of course not. You can afford to be arrogant when dupes are paying you £34.50 a kilo for your measly flat-leaf parsley.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone