Pre-packed Food

Reporter: Helen Wellings

The popularity of pre-packed foods is rising fast according to experts, but consumers are paying excessively for the convenience say critics.

"Consumers can pay up to 10 times more for a product in the name of convenience. It's simply a rip off." Says Professor Frank Zumbo, Economics Law University of NSW

"The one section of the market that is seeing the most amount of growth is the pre-packs and things like packaged salads." says Michael Worthington, Chief Executive of Produce Marketing Association.

Portion-packaging started with hams, cheeses and salmon being sealed up, ready to serve, much easier than the unpackaged equivalents. Then about 15 years ago, the humble unwashed whole lettuce was put into fancy-dress: pre-washed pre-packaged leaves, straight to the plate.

Now everywhere you look in the supermarket, products are in plastic boxes and sachets. Convenient, easy, no doubt, but you're paying for it.

"Paying $24 a kilo for lettuce just for a bit of plastic and air is a rip-off in anyone's language." says Zumbo.

For a whole cos lettuce Today Tonight paid just $2.48. For pre-packed leaves, it cost $2.69 just for 100gm, which works out to be $26.90 a kilo. For 200gm of loose button mushrooms we paid $2, for the packed version it cost $3.50. Smoked salmon can be purchased at the deli for $7.40 for 200gm, pre-packed Today Tonight paid $9.

"It's clear that it is price gouging because the convenience is very much overstated. It doesn't take that much time in terms of slicing up mushrooms and they are charging you up to 10 times more for that product." says Zumbo.

"To me its trickery. The supermarkets are engaging in psychological trickery by trying to convince time poor consumers they can save time and money but consumers need to be aware they are paying an excessive premium for the so-called convenience." he continues.

"I think there's a bit of a false economy with people thinking that way. Sometimes if you're having to buy all the different ingredients, quite a lot of it sometimes ends up going to the bin because it doesn't get used in the same sort of portions that you would've done it in packaged salads. Plus you're getting absolutely no waste in a packaged salad." says Michael Worthington.

Worthington says sales of pre-packaged foods are rising 9 per cent a year.

"It just keeps growing. Therefore the consumers must be saying this is something I'm prepared to pay for. But I think the important thing is that they know they've got choice so they don't have to buy packaged salad." says Worthington.

When products are together on the shelves, it's easy to assess value for money by comparing the unit prices between the different brands. When comparing loose food to the packaged equivalent, you need to go from one section of the supermarket to the another to compare the prices, which most people don't have the time to do.

Woolworths Clare Buchanan says they're only offering what shoppers want to buy.

"We offer a range of choice for the customer and at the end of the day we can only sell to customers what they're willing to buy."

"I think people choose convenient products for different types of reasons. Not everybody will buy a ready meal every night of the week. Some people will cook from scratch two or three nights a week. It really depends on what you want."

"Where the product is pre packaged, consumers should be on red-alert that they might be paying a premium for a product where the premium is just not justifiable." says Zumbo.

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