Saturday 15 March 2014

Are supermarkets "super"?

How safe are supermarkets?

Given that most of us buy our food from supermarkets, should we feel safe? Should we feel comfortable trusting our money, our health, even our lives to the people who run them? Or should we be worried?

The bad news is that we should be worried.

Following a number of questions and complaints from consumers we took a close look at supermarkets. The first issue raised was labeling. Customers have suspected for a long time that a particular store was not playing fair with the prices they charged for goods they’d imported from South Africa.
For instance one item they sold was priced at P176.80. However, next to the Pula price label was another label showing that in South Africa it sold for a mere R150. The arithmetic is surprising. Take off the 14% South African VAT, convert the price to Pula using today’s exchange rate and then add on our 12% VAT and you certainly don’t get to P176.80. Not even close. In fact you get to just P127.04. The store are effectively adding close to P50 on top, a markup of almost 40%, just for the privilege of buying their goods in Botswana.

Of course the store does its best to defend this markup. They say they add 7% on top for the added costs of transportation of perishable goods and 4% for non-perishable items. But that just doesn’t work out. The numbers aren’t right. They can’t explain the extra 40% they charge.

We’ve looked at other items they sell and the story is always the same. They are adding on anything from 25-40% without being able to explain it.

The obvious question to ask is whether other stores from South Africa are doing the same? We spoke to a one, a major retailer, who confirmed that yes, they also mark up their goods to reflect the increased transportation costs they incur. But they told us they add just 1% to the prices. Not 40%. We checked and it’s true.

So why is the first store adding so much? The reason is actually very simple. They like making lots of money from us and we let them do it.

There is a more worrying tendency among supermarkets. Carelessness about hygiene and food safety.

We’ve had numerous complaints from readers about the quality of food and the way it’s being stored in a variety of supermarkets. We’ve heard of moldy fruit and vegetables on sale, a number of products that have passed their use-by date and even some that are within their sell-by period but which turn out to be decomposing when opened. So again we went out to see for ourselves if this was the case and it was really very easy to find cases of rules and regulations being flouted.

We found supermarkets with expired goods still on display, supposedly “fresh” produce that clearly was rotten and a range of products that, contrary to the rules, had no Use-by or Sell-by dates. This wasn’t just in one supermarket, this was in a number of them throughout Gaborone. It was also in a range of “qualities” of store. Some were the more basic stores, others were the higher end of the range stores. It seems to be a universal failure.

One thing that was worrying was a comment one supermarket manager made about labeling of goods. He told us that he actively tries to sell local produce wherever possible and for that he deserves praise. We all know, don’t we, that buying local is best? So long as the produce is as good as the imported alternatives buying local is a comprehensively good thing to do. The transportation costs are lower, the goods are likely to be fresher and, above all, it supports the endeavours of our friends and neighbours. It’s the environmentally sensible, most economical and patriotic thing to do. We should all be buying local, so long as the quality is good enough.

Unfortunately this store manager told us that the biggest problem he faced was getting local fruit and vegetable producers to label their produce. For some peculiar reason they refuse to do this, despite it being a legal requirement to do with packaged goods. The store manager’s dilemma was whether he should buy local or obey the law on labeling. Either way he can’t win.

My position is simple. Much as I want us to support local industry, obeying the law comes first, particularly when it concerns our health and welfare.

We’re not going to stop the investigation of supermarkets. The issue is serious enough that we won’t give up. Stores are going to face a choice. Start obeying the laws on labeling and food safety or see your business decline.

The sad news is that supermarkets rely, to some extent, on our apathy. Just like very few of us change banks because of the hassle of filling in forms, supplying endless documents and offering blood samples very few of us will change our supermarket preferences. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, rarely visit anything other than the two stores in the shopping centre I pass on my way home.

However until we start voting with our feet, our wallets and purses the banks and the supermarkets aren’t going to change.

Unless… There is another approach that might have an effect. Shame.

I’m afraid that if we don’t get suitable responses from the supermarkets that we find are breaking the law then they’re going to become famous, but not in the way they might hope. Famous for trying to poison us.

Is that the sort of fame they want?

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