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Analysis

Mail writer wrongly blames EU not Brexit for shrinkflation

by Luke Lythgoe | 22.02.2017

Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn writes “Don’t blame it on the sunshine – blame it on the Brexit”. Instead he’s willing to blame current food price hikes and so-called shrinkflation on a more familiar scapegoat – the EU.

In his column, Littlejohn complains everything is now being unfairly blamed on Brexit, from the iceberg lettuce shortage (actually blamed on a bad Spanish winter) to the “annual NHS winter crisis” (again, blamed on winter – although Brexit will hardly give the NHS the cleanest bill of health in future).

Littlejohn’s biggest gripe is people blaming rising food prices and shrinkflation – whereby food sizes shrink but prices stay the same or rise – on the devaluation of the pound following the referendum. This is at odds with a recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary which found not only higher food prices since the referendum, but multiple cases of shrinkflation, as retailers attempt to mask price increases and avoid losing customers to their budget rivals as they did when the pound plunged in 2008.

Littlejohn is willing to concede that “fluctuating currency rates have an impact on the cost of imports, especially food”. But despite economists’ warnings and signs that higher-priced imports are already having an impact, the columnist questions how inflationary the UK’s vote to leave can really be for food prices. He argues: “Whenever sterling has strengthened in the past against the euro and the dollar, I haven’t been aware of prices in the shops and at the pumps plummeting accordingly.”

Littlejohn clearly hasn’t been paying attention, as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) chart below shows.

2017-02-22-2

Meanwhile, Littlejohn’s observation of the times prices didn’t drop has some fairly straightforward economic explanations. A strong economy often sees a rise in workers’ wages. This can offset any gains retailers might make from cheaper imports if the pound is also strong, and therefore the benefits are less often passed on to customers.

Conversely, if the economy weakens it is never as easy or popular to dock workers’ wages – therefore we often see price inflation if sterling is also weak. However, in the Brexit scenario only the currency has deteriorated, with both supply and demand for food staying the same. Therefore prices are rising.

But Littlejohn doesn’t blame Brexit for shrinkflation. Instead he blames the metric system – imposed to “bring us into line with Europe” – claiming that for years manufacturers have been “salami-slicing products” or “using sleight of hand” to shave grams and millilitres off. “Fairly simple,” he claims, “particularly for those of us educated in imperial measures”.

There are two problems with this claim. First, metrication was already widespread in Britain years before we joined the EU. Second, BRC told InFacts there is “no evidence that the move to metric caused systematic downsizing” and even if it had then it would have happened once and “doesn’t offer scope for continual resizing of products”.

Littlejohn is doing a disservice to savvy British shoppers. The UK has a highly competitive food retail market in which consumers regularly shop around for the best prices. Retailers are forced to be competitive and offer good value for money – a situation shown by falling food prices over the last four consecutive years.

It is no coincidence this trend has begun to reverse since last June. To rearrange Littlejohn’s own headline: don’t blame it on Brussels – blame it on the Brexit, sunshine.

InFacts approached Littlejohn for comment but had not received a reply at time of writing.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

4 Responses to “Mail writer wrongly blames EU not Brexit for shrinkflation”

  • The Daily Mail has been publishing lies and gross distortions about the EEC/EU for decades now. I wondered how long it would be before they started to blame the EU the appalling mess that is Brexit.

  • Littlejohn once went haywire with complaints about old and cranky trains on the soon to be privatised British railway lines and compared them to the new and shiny TGV’s on French tracks. Privatization would change that situation soon for the better in Britain. Unfortunately the French run a network on which British style privatisation hardly took hold and the British adventures with high-speed lines are only too well known history. The Daily Mail has a knack to get it badly wrong, but unfortunately one has to know the non-alternative facts to know where the slope gets too slippery. Nice to notice, though, that “Europe” could do something right in the eyes of the Daily Mail in those days.

  • My son is over 50 years old; he – and everyone younger than that – was taught exclusively in the metric system, and no one at home wanted to damage that advance, by refering to the “avoirdupois” pounds and ounces or degrees “Farenheit”. At the school I started at in 1949 the majority of measurement, of anything, was metric. It has taken a long time for inflation to result! I would have thought that saving educated people from having to convert everything from metric units into Imperialist for the ignorant would have saved money.