Campbell Live built its recent story on locally made versus imported food products on the premise that New Zealand is “a huge food-producing nation”. It’s true that our dairy, meat and horticulture sectors are significant exporters, but when it comes to many staple foods we buy in supermarkets, we’re a minnow. Dare I say it, in casting New Zealand as a huge food producer, the current affairs programme was perpetuating a myth.
The reason our supermarket foods don’t carry more foods with the label, “Product of New Zealand”, is that they don’t exist. Basically the reasons boil down to the inability to grow many ingredients, a tiny domestic market, and a lack of investment which results in a lack of scale and an inability to meet competition from imports.
Strange as it may sound, it is the consumer who’s in the driving seat when it comes to determining the origin of their food products through purchasing power, irrespective of what growers can produce and food companies might make. This is aside from items that we simply or don’t grow on a commercial scale, like one of the largest selling fruits, bananas.
Consumers make their choices about what they buy in a supermarket, and price plays a major part on their decision making. It’s true that brand and taste still figure very prominently in the purchasing equation, but for more and more consumers, price is the deal maker. We’ve seen this recently in Australia where local production lost out to less expensive imports.
The reality is that in a tiny domestic market like New Zealand, very few companies have the scale to buy ingredients and prepare foods that are price competitive with imported food products, which now more than ever have the benefit of a high New Zealand dollar.
For a product on the supermarket shelf to be competitively priced, means that the ingredients have to be competitively priced and production has to be cost efficient. So it is not only a question of whether an ingredient is available in New Zealand, but whether it is available on a commercial scale and at price that allows the finished product to be competitive. This includes flour for commercial scale bread making.
Some try to fight imports by maligning the country of origin, because they have the mistaken belief that everything grown and produced in New Zealand is safe, and everything grown elsewhere is not. More important is the guardian or brand of the food, and the reality is, regardless of whether a food item is made locally or imported, it must meet the very same strict standards of food safety.
Likewise, some are confused by the labelling of foods with “made from local and imported ingredients”. Often this is without any thoughts as to what those ingredients are. Take Wattie’s Baked Beans. Despite a number of attempts over many years Wattie’s has not been able to establish a local supply of navy beans. There has been no lack of willing, it is a matter of having the right bean for local conditions. Again, take Wattie’s Spaghetti. The spaghetti pasta is actually made Hastings, but the flour is imported because there is not a viable local supply for this product.
There are many food products that include ingredients not available in New Zealand. For instance, all our sugar and rice is imported because there are simply no local supplies. The same with many herbs, spices and oils. The reality is that neither home cooks or food manufacturers would use pricey gourmet olive oil, such as NZ produces, every time oil is required in a recipe.