So Maggie Beer thinks we benighted Australian consumers don’t pay enough for our food, complaining that “so many Australians seek the cheapest alternative in food, and perhaps this is exacerbated by the big two [retailers], our duopoly, that pits one against the other in price wars, that see the farmer suffer. We have to do something about that.” Speaking at the very Soviet-sounding International Year of the Co-Operatives Conference this week, Beer continued, “It’s interesting Australians say they will support Australian-made and Australian-grown, but will we? We support what’s marketed most, and we so often support what’s cheapest, especially with food.”
Pesky kulaks: When they’re not withholding their grain from the co-operative, they’re withholding their income from those who speak to conferences about co-operatives.
But really, now. Beer, a highly successful businesswoman who has created an iconic brand around herself by bringing middle-brow “gourmet” food to the masses, is suddenly complaining that rational individual consumers act like, well, rational individual consumers and respond to marketing and pricing signals? In a country where 17 per cent of the average wage already goes to pay for food and non-alcoholic drink – far, far more than in most other developed countries – Beer’s is a pretty, ahem, rich complaint. While the Prick is fortunate enough to enjoy a reasonable degree of petit-bourgeoisie prosperity these days, it was not so very long ago that a $50 note errantly left in a pair of jeans sent through the front-loader was a near starvation-‘til-payday disaster. (Say what you will about Securency, but their robust plastic notes saved the day – and very possibly the Prick from a life of crime.) That memory, and others like it, make one exceedingly allergic to claims that we should all dig a little deeper to keep body and soul together.
Nor can Beer reasonably portray herself as a victim of big business. She is big business. Of course she wants Australians to spend more on Australian produce: Australian produce is what she sells. That plastic container of Maggie Beer pâté you cracked open with a split of cheap domestic white as consolation for being trapped in the middle seat of row 36 out of Melbourne last week? It wasn’t packed lovingly by hand in a Barossa farmhouse full of laughing middle-aged women just waiting for Rick Stein to motor up and flirt with them between takes of his latest series of “Food Heroes”. Anyone who thinks differently probably also believes Ben & Jerry’s really is hand-churned by a couple of weird-beards who let the occasional bud drop into a batch of Cherry Garcia. The rest of us who have ever opened a plastic packet of her mass-produced goop at 36,000 feet would likely agree with Beer’s words at the Co-Operative collective: “’I have to say flavour, seasonality, ripeness, cannot travel a long way.” Indeed.
Beer’s message is little more than “let them eat cake”, but with a twist: In Beer’s case, it is more like, “let them eat my particular mass-produced cake, and pay me extra for the privilege.” The Prick does not begrudge Beer her commercial success; more power to her. She is, by all accounts, a lovely person. The woman has, over the course of her lifetime, done some great things for Australian food, and no one can complain about that. But let us also not forget that she serves up her complaints with an extra helping of self-interest. Same as Dick Smith and the milk industry and so many other quasi-rent seekers before her. Meanwhile, if the Prick wants some damn duck pâté, he’ll make it himself.
UPDATE: A friend of the site makes a good point: “Since she’s so very concerned about pricing and the farmers not being paid enough I think Maggie should step up and tell us all her exact lineitem input costs on each tub of quince flavoured dust she produces (I don’t like the stuff even tho’ plenty of folks do, sorry) and her profits on each wholesale and retail dealio too. If she’s making less than 30 points per item I’d be surprised. Don’t get me wrong, she can cook and she’s a great ambassador for Oz food but she can shove her collective slowfood type politics, she really can. I am sick of being lectured by cooks.”