WELFARE

Too much food to share

PETER LEWIS March 2 1987
WELFARE

Too much food to share

PETER LEWIS March 2 1987

Too much food to share

WELFARE

A cross Europe, unsold stockpiles of butter, grain, wine, vegetable oil and other foods fill warehouses and cold storage vaults from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. They exist in large part because of overproduction fuelled by generous farm subsidies in the 12 European Community countries. But one of the harshest winters in decades has resulted in a slight reduction in surplus food stocks valued at $17.6 billion last

year. Agriculture ministers in the EC agreed last month to distribute $3.7 million worth of blankets and fuel— and what may amount to $73 million worth of the excess food—to the poor by March 31. As they did so they insisted that the distribution of beef, fish, cheese, flour, fruit and other staples was a unique event sparked by extreme distress.

Still, EC spokesman Nico Wegter acknowledged in Brussels recently that the program might become permanent-providing assistance to as many as 30 million people in member countries. Said Wegter: “The experiment could show charity to be an effective, long-term way of reducing our huge food surpluses.” Meanwhile, an EC policy designed to maintain market prices and protect European farmers has piled up 16.5 million tons of cereals, one million tons of butter and 566,000 tons of beef. That approach has drawn fire from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and critics such as rock musician and food-aid activist Bob Geldof.

Last December Thatcher told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, that storing and disposing of the surplus food accounted for half of the EC’s $45.8-billion yearly budget. And Geldof has said that building surplus food stockpiles while people in Ethiopia and other poor countries die of starvation is a “crowning idiocy.”

Certainly, past efforts to reduce surplus food stocks have embroiled EC farm officials in controversy. Until

1986 the EC routinely released huge stocks of butter at Christmas at 55 cents for a 250-gram package, or 30 per cent of the normal price. But that program, which was intended to make dairy products more readily available to poor Europeans, did little to reduce what has become known as the EC’s butter mountain. For one thing, EC market analysts noticed that butter sales usually declined in January and February. The reason: middle-class consumers made bulk purchases when prices were cut at Christmas, then froze the butter for use when prices rose again. Indeed, European margarine producers complained that the annual Christmas butter sale was unfair competition. And in a 1985 case that is still before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, they asked the court to ban the practice.

By contrast, EC officials gained initial favorable publicity when they launched the winter food-relief program during the week of Jan. 19. The announcement came in the midst of a three-week peri-

od marked by bitter cold and blizzards across the continent—conditions that claimed the lives of at least 330 people. But in Britain and West Germany, critics complained that national agricultural board officials had been slow to form a distribution network using the Red Cross and established charities like the Salvation Army. As a result, many recipients did not get surplus food packages until mid-February—when the severe weather conditions had abated.

There were also some delays in France, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland—EC countries where officials generally achieved swift and smooth deliveries of surplus food. In Brussels, social workers served meat and other foodstuffs only in prepared dishes in order to prevent unscrupulous recipients from selling the surplus food. Declared Belgian Red Cross spokesman Jean-Pierre Collignon: “We dispensed with as much red tape as possible, but time was lost in making sure the food reached the people it was intended for.”

By mid-February relief workers had distributed at least 56,934 tons of flour and semolina, 6,333 tons of sugar, 894 tons of butter and 841 tons of beef. According to the representatives of some charity organizations, those totals suggest that regular handouts of free surplus food are urgently needed. In France, a private organization called Les Restaurants du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart) regularly provides low-cost meals for the needy in 25 communities by purchasing such commodities as EC surplus beef. Now, by using food obtained in the EC winter giveaway, volunteer workers have lowered the price of a meal by 25 per cent—to 77 cents.

For their part, EC officials say that establishment of a vast food distribution program is unlikely. Declared Community spokesman Wegter: “The EC is not a sugar daddy. Any excessive generosity could disrupt markets and beggar the butchers and grocers of Europe.” Still, some merchants in areas where surplus food has been distributed say that the program has had no effect on business. In fact, one of them, Brussels-area grocer Roland Rigoux, argued that increased aid to the poor might increase the profits of his small store. Declared Rigoux: “It will free them to spend more on nonessentials that give me a better margin.” And EC officials may find it difficult to argue against a dramatic expansion of the free-food program. By their own estimates the distribution costs of the program will amount to $2.6 million— about what it costs to store the EC’s surplus butter for a single day.

— PETER LEWIS in Brussels with BRIGID JANSSEN in Paris

PETER LEWIS

BRIGID JANSSEN