Champagne Taste on a (Maggie) Beer Budget

“Next, add a heaping tablespoon of self-interest and stir…”

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.”

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4 Responses to Champagne Taste on a (Maggie) Beer Budget

  1. Christian Kerr says:

    Two points: Pheasant Farm pate was really awfully good when the only place you used to be able to buy it from was a stall at the Adelaide Central Market run by a bunch of Sloane Ranger mummies. Also, I’ve always been prepared to give Maggie Beer the benefit of the doubt since she didn’t bat an eyelid one beautifully warm May afternoon back in 1985 or 86 when a group of us, already well refreshed after our lunch entree at the dear departed Pheasant Farm Restaurant, thought we would cleanse our palates and ourselves by stripping down to our underwear and leaping off the decking into the dam while waiting for our mains.

  2. I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Fork, on the matter of “rent seeking… farmers”.

    The executives of the supermarket duopoly are squeezing Australian farmers to produce at less than cost of production. This will lead to slaughter of the (for an example of just one industry) dairy herd, dispersal of the infrastructure, and loss of the skill.
    Replacement will be by use of factory handled overseas produced UHT milk.

    The supermarket duopoly are doing to the rural sector what the Gillard government is doing to the treasury (for a comparison that is most apt).

    Australian farmers are not subsidised as they are in other countries, yet they have to pay western world prices on their inputs (being taxed on inputs always hurts).

    Then in the wider discussion group of society, they have to deal with people who vapidly expound: “farming is just like any other business, and should be treated as such!”

    No it isn’t, no it shouldn’t.

    No other country persecutes its farmers as Australia does.
    Australia is hamstrung by an urban sector (that outvotes the rural sector – see Thomas Jefferson for some apt quotes on that) that lives in complete ignorance of the farming sector. This is not a good thing.

    In these civilised times one must not call for the execution of supermarket executives. But an outcome along such lines would be most just, and most deserved.

  3. Entropy says:

    Steve, sorry mate, have to strongly disagree, particularly regarding dairy farmers. There is the Victorian and Tasmanian industries that are going gangbusters and expanding, and their poor, under performing cousins in Queensland and NSW. The reasons why this is so is why Qld and NSW dairy farmers are having a hard time.

  4. kae says:

    Living in the Lockyer Valley, food bowl and Inland Tsunami capital of Australia*, I can tell you that many farmers are unimpressed by the price they get for their produce compared to what is charged for similar produce, particularly in local Col-ies shops.

    Speaking with a local farmer his crops are chosen by the seller (one of the big two), he plants whatever they tell him to, and he is just the caretaker.

    The Cook and The Chef was an amusing program and it was much more “down to earth” than many others presented for general consumption. Too many “chefs” are obsessed with pushing the “organic is better” barrow, and I’ve seen it on one episode of Master Chef where the contestants were all taken to the country where the food was grown, ate the local “organic” produce and raved about how much better it tasted than the stuff off the supermarket shelves (er, perhaps that was before Coles became a sponsor?). Rot. If the “organic” food tastes better I’m sure that’s because it is a different type of product, not bred for the ability to travel far distances without being reduced to a bruised puree, and the ability to sit on shelves in shops for a week or more (this after being stored and/or travelling for days to the shop shelf) while still looking and smelling edible.

    *Okay, Queensland.

    Note: I love Beer’s burnt fig, caramel and something else ice cream. But at $9/500ml I decided that it was far too expensive to justify indulging.

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