ANN CAHILL: Goods ‘wrapped in up to six times more packaging’

AN investigation into unfair retail services may have uncovered why Ireland’s food prices are the second highest in the EU.

Goods in Irish supermarkets and shops, according to the report, are wrapped in up to six times more packaging than in any other member state. But overall, the investigation finds the problems are mainly caused by big buyers and multi-national chains abusing their dominant position, poor information on special offers beyond local markets and the slow growth of e-commerce.

Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier has promised to introduce new rules in the autumn after he has heard from interested bodies, including ordinary consumers. Half of all retail is grocery and it is dominated by big multi-nationals. In the old EU 15 countries, three years ago just eight companies accounted for up to 80% of the grocery market. In Ireland the figure was 50% and growing. The report found that prices can vary hugely for products, even for an identical product in different outlets that belong to the same company.

The numbers employed in retail vary greatly too, being highest in Britain at 10.5% of workers. In Ireland there has been a shift to part-time and the numbers doubled over the past few years.

The report, looking at the cost to the environment and to consumers, found that packaging waste was still increasing, up 17% in the nine years to 2007 and outpacing the growth in GDP since 2001. Ireland was top of this league, producing 245kg of packaging waste per person, a third more than the EU average and six times greater than Bulgaria, the country that produces the least. The researchers offered no explanation, other than to say that it could be due to different consumption and production patterns, or even different definitions of packaging.

The report was welcomed by Mairead McGuinness, the Fine Gael MEP who has been pushing for action on food prices, saying there is too much of a mismatch between what farmers are getting for their produce and what consumers have to pay. “The level of detail in today’s report is impressive, looking at the issue in a systematic way and drilling down to the minutiae of the issues involved.

“When this process is complete we should know for example if there is any basis to the reasons given by the multiples for the fact that Irish food prices are the second highest in the EU,” she said. She added that the issue needs to be addressed at EU level.


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