JENI O’DOWD: Why parents turning to a $3 bag of Doritos is the ultimate symbol of the cost of living crisis

Jeni O’Dowd
The Nightly
JENI O’DOWD: When a bag of Doritos is the most affordable after-school snack parents can provide their kids, you know something is seriously amiss.
JENI O’DOWD: When a bag of Doritos is the most affordable after-school snack parents can provide their kids, you know something is seriously amiss. Credit: Thomas La Verghetta

Like thousands of Australians, this was my typical shopping day yesterday. I drove to my local supermarket, armed with a shopping list and a budget in mind.

But as I walked down the aisles, I was met with sticker shock at every turn. One lonely onion set me back more than a dollar, a punnet of strawberries demanded a hefty $5.50, and a single orange cost $2.02. And don’t even get me started on a single loaf of sourdough bread, now breaching the $6.50 mark.

It was enough to make me question whether I had accidentally wandered into a gourmet market in the heart of Paris.

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Yet, this isn’t a tale of luxury shopping extravagance; it’s the everyday reality faced by shoppers across Australia, courtesy of the duopoly reigning supreme in our supermarket industry — one of the most concentrated retail markets in the developed world.

An interim report from the 2023–24 Review of the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct, handed down on Monday, recommended mandating a food and grocery code of conduct for Australia’s biggest supermarket chains.

It said they should receive heavy fines of up to $10 million or 10 per cent of annual turnover if they breached business behaviour standards.

The report, from a review headed by former Labor minister Craig Emerson, concluded the existing voluntary food and grocery code of conduct was “not effective” because the lack of penalties meant supermarkets could walk away from it at any time.

This review is running alongside several other inquiries into the grocery industry, including an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into supermarket prices and a Senate inquiry into price-setting practices.

As the spotlight shines on this issue, one question lingers: when will the Government finally fix this broken system? How many inquiries and submissions does it need to prove the obvious — people are struggling to buy basic food?

I’ve witnessed parents resorting to cheaper junk food for after-school snacks, like a $3 large pack of Doritos, to stretch the budget. Others are stuck in a monotonous cycle of mince-based meals. This is the harsh reality of life in Australia today.

My brother-in-law recently spent nearly $800 on groceries for his three teenagers, estimating it would barely last four days. It lasted three and sadly, I wasn’t even surprised at the cost.

I’m tired of hearing about the ongoing supermarket inquiries, shrinkflation, and price gouging. Just fix the bloody system! Farmers are being exploited, consumers are being short-changed, and major supermarkets rake in exorbitant profits every year. Enough is enough.

The Coalition has capitalised on the issue, which is poised to become a focal point in the next election. While some may view this as a strategic move, it’s hardly groundbreaking.

JENI O’DOWD: When a bag of Doritos is the most affordable after-school snack parents can provide their kids, you know something is seriously amiss. Enough is enough.
JENI O’DOWD: When a bag of Doritos is the most affordable after-school snack parents can provide their kids, you know something is seriously amiss. Enough is enough. Credit: stock.adobe.com/billtster

Promising to reduce grocery prices is such a no-s..t Sherlock thing to do to win votes in traditional Labor electorates.

The Coalition is reportedly drafting new legislation, a long-time demand of the Nationals, to potentially divest assets of major companies if they continually abuse their market dominance. But how long would it take to prove such abuse, and what would be the time frame for asset divestment?

Dr Emerson’s interim report did not support forced divestiture powers, arguing that effective enforcement of existing laws and heavier penalties would be a more credible deterrent to anti-competitive behaviour.

Perhaps it would be easier, as the Australian Food and Grocery Council advocated in the Senate inquiry, to allow for additional supermarket competition to not only create consumer benefits of choice, innovation, and competitive prices but to also reduce risks for suppliers and keep manufacturing jobs in Australia.

It noted that apart from Costco and Aldi, there had been no new entrants into the Australian supermarket sector given the high barriers to entry.

In January 2020 Kaufland, a major German retailer, abandoned its plans to enter the Australian market despite having invested several years and more than $500m. With all the rules and regulations, it was all too hard.

Meanwhile, the Senate inquiry has received nearly 130 submissions. What I like most is how many are from ordinary consumers telling the Government exactly how it is.

Nurse Geordan Nicholson, who works in disability care, wrote: “It’s genuinely a disgrace to live in such an advanced country when so many hard-working Australians are so immensely stressed over basic foods.”

And Gaye Matthews speaks for all of us when she says: “I cannot count the number of times (I say) the words ‘holy shit’ on my shopping trips… in disbelief at the price rises that just keep rising. Surely the Government can step in and do more to control price increases?”

She continues: “I hope this Senate inquiry proves price gouging and the big supermarkets are fined and forced to drop their prices!

“I’m expecting the opposite though, an inquiry that shows price gouging, a slap on the wrist, and a pat on the back and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s so one-sided.”

And I have to say I agree with both of them.

The other pertinent thing to note in the submissions is the health aspect. The Public Health Association says the Government has a responsibility to prevent unjust practices and protect the right so everyone can access nutritious food.

Dieticians Australia says current government regulations and policies have not been sufficient in controlling food prices — and evidence shows increases in the price of essential items such as food may lead to food insecurity.
Dieticians Australia says current government regulations and policies have not been sufficient in controlling food prices — and evidence shows increases in the price of essential items such as food may lead to food insecurity. Credit: Mikhailov Studio - stock.adobe.c

It says appropriate Government regulations and enforcement of guidelines are missing in the Australian supermarket landscape, and industry self-regulation of pricing and discounts affects access to nutritious options.

“Vulnerable Australians are already at an increased risk of adverse health outcomes; when supermarkets raise food prices, they contribute to the widening of existing health disparities, both directly by influencing what and how much people buy and consume and indirectly, by reducing the available budget for other living costs,” it says in its submission.

Dieticians Australia says current government regulations and policies have not been sufficient in controlling food prices — and evidence shows increases in the price of essential items such as food may lead to food insecurity.

This can lead to the risk of chronic diseases in both adults and children, impacting productivity and the ability of children to develop and learn.

As the inquiries unfold and the next Federal election looms, I, like millions of other voters, are fixed on the outcome.

Will there be a new era of fair pricing and competition, or will all these inquiries fall short of addressing systemic issues?

The answer remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: the battle over supermarket prices is far from over.

It’s a battle for the affordability of essentials, the well-being of families, and the integrity of Australia’s economic landscape.

And in this battle, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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