In Poland, Big Food, Big Politics

Polish supermarkets are full of groceries produced domestically, with serious implications

Top Stories | Martin Ehl | November 2012

Poland’s largest discount grocery chain is now opening 200 new stores a year (Photo: APA)

Polish food can be political. But not in the way consumers in the Czech Republic imagine, exposed as they were to the affair surrounding the use of industrial salt in Polish foodstuffs. The Czech food inspection agency made that revelation and others, which the Poles vehemently protested. No product with industrial salt ever reached the Czech Republic, and, as for the fake cocoa powder, that had been imported to Poland from Brazil and only packaged there. In October I heard both things with my own ears from high Polish government and public health officials.

Defending Polish foods and their producers is one of the most important tasks of Polish politicians. Food production in Poland is an important political factor, which can’t be said, for example, about the Czech Republic or Slovakia. While agriculture produces only 4 per cent of GDP, it employs 15 per cent of the work force. And although only half of those listed as landowners in the category of farmers actually live off of agriculture, that half pays almost no taxes and social security payments – meaning the relationship of the peasantry to the state treasury is also a problem for the Polish government’s finances. It’s not only small farmers who do not pay taxes, but also the large agricultural companies that produce the greatest share of Polish foodstuffs.


A majority of small farms

The reform of this system is a touchy political issue, because the smaller partner in the ruling coalition is the Polish People’s Party – the country’s oldest continuously existing political party, which represents above all these very farmers and rural residents. The party has already blocked one attempt at reform by Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Around 56 per cent of the 1.5 million-strong farming economy are farmers working up to five hectares of land. They cannot compete in the market with the largest farm, but they still represent a strong constituency base.

Even under such state protection Polish producers complain about pressure from the large multinational chains and companies. So, for instance, the director of the third largest dairy from the city of Lowicz in central Poland actually represents 5,000 farmers who, with their cooperative, own the company while supplying it with their products. "We believe in the free market, but large corporations like Danone also control in our country those most profitable sectors of the dairy industry – ice cream and yogurt. But we are fighting and we will fight," Jan Dabrowski, the dairy director, told a group of visiting Czech and Slovak journalists in October.


‘Made in Poland’ is preferred

The number of voters who shop for food is obviously more than those who produce it. But they, too, subscribe to the saying that what is Polish is good. The largest Polish food discount chain – with the poetic name of Biedronka (Ladybug) – has been opening 200 new outlets a year and is already the fourth-largest Polish company, after the PKN Orlen oil concern, the PGNiG state gas company, and the PGE state energy giant. Owned by the Portuguese firm Jeronimo Martins, Biedronka is the largest private company in Poland, because in all three of those energy companies the state has a majority share.

Large chains like Biedronka control 50 to 55 per cent of the market, while small businesses and family firms represent 45 per cent. "The best situation for the consumer is if the two systems are roughly balanced and compete against each other. But small businesses are declining," said Karol Dobrowolski, deputy director of Bronisze, a wholesale company that sells fruits, vegetables, and flowers in Warsaw.

That doesn’t change the fact, however, that 80 per cent of the food in large supermarkets is produced domestically. (In Slovakia, the figure is around 50 per cent and in the Czech Republic the share varies according to the season from 40 to 80 per cent.) In the food business, tradition and Polish patriotism combine with the usual arguments about supporting domestic markets to produce some truly exceptional numbers.

Martin Ehl is foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny, where this originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.

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