News that Malta Dairy Products (MDP) would be raising the price of most of its popular Benna line has drawn predictably strong reactions and given prominence in local media.
The company said that despite its efforts to absorb the additional costs during the pandemic, the ongoing war has led to another sharp rise in prices beyond the company’s control.
However, David Xuereb, a climate change and decarbonisation consultant, has questioned the fairness of the coverage the news received for failing to contextualise the increase in the broader inflationary context, pointing out that most imported products, including direct competitors, have actually seen more pronounced price hikes.
“The reaction to the small increase in the price of certain locally produced foodstuffs is very unfair,” he said. “The things I read being said in the papers undermine the message we need to be sending out, to eat healthy and fresh food like that grown and produced locally.”
Perit Xuereb, who previously served as the president of The Malta Chamber, decried the “singling out” of Benna.
“It’s not on. It’s being splashed across the media as if they are the only ones who were forced to raise their prices because of the increased cost of feed. It defies what we are all trying to achieve – to safeguard local produce and the Maltese agricultural sector.”
He highlighted Malta’s vulnerability as a country that only produces 15 per cent of what it eats, making it extremely dependent on imports, adding that although limited, local production shields consumers from “unnatural” upward price pressures, such as increasing transportation costs.
“Our agricultural sector is vital to our food security,” he said. “It also serves as protection against the consequences of the war in Ukraine, and should be at the heart of our collective efforts to address climate change and public health.”
He continued: “What is worse is that although food products imported from abroad have become noticeably more expensive over the last months, we are highlighting the marginal increase of a local staple that has been able to withstand the pressure so far.”
Although he warned that the message this sends out to audiences is effectively to move away from buying local, BusinessNow.mt asked whether the coverage is more simply a result of the close attachment many feel to the brand. In 2020, Brian Vella, who was at the time chairman of Koperativa Produtturi Ħalib, the parent company of MDP, said that “customers treat Benna as part of our local heritage”.
While acknowledging that this plays a role in the media’s reaction to any changes to Malta’s beloved Benna, Perit Xuereb argued that the media must exercise caution in their reporting to avoid unintended outcomes.
“There is plenty of competition out there,” he concluded. “Nearly all supermarkets import foreign versions of these products, and their prices have increased significantly. This context, however, was missing in the reports.”
Economist and Malta Dairy Products Director Stephanie Fabri Reaction
Earlier, Stephanie Fabri, an economist and non-executive director on the MDP board, took to social media in similar vein.
“The past years have highlighted the importance of food security,” she said. “In a time when all prices are rising due to external factors beyond our control, we decide to make headlines on the increase in prices of fresh local produce of specific local companies like Benna, as if such an action is abnormal in times like these.”
She pointed out that Maltese companies are facing increasing cost presssures as a result of the current situation in particular, and said that these “unfortunately have be included in prices increases to retain competitiveness but most importantly to ensure survival.”
Malta Food Agency CEO Brian Vella Reaction
Mr Vella, today CEO of the Malta Food Agency, was more guarded in his remarks.
“The media does its work and I won’t comment on how it does it,” he said. “What is important is that it feels – and transmits – a sense of responsibility towards local products.”
He referred to a recent trip to Brussels where he saw how each country promotes its own products.
“Everyone watches out for their own,” he said. “Reporting is fine. We just need to be careful how to put the message across. Context is important.”
Mr Vella said that the Food Agency is tasked with seeing that local sectors are sustainable so that the country’s food security is improved, and pointed out that Maltese products are also part of Malta’s heritage and therefore a key attraction for tourists.
“Can you imagine Malta without its own milk, pork, and vegetables? These things are part of our culture, part of our spirit. Imagine telling tourists that we do not produce anything! It would lend weight to the view that we are an island of concrete.”
He lauded the Government’s efforts to soften the impact of the increased price of grains on the international markets, describing it as “good assistance in very difficult circumstances”.
Mr Vella also warned that increases in the price of staples like milk hit those on lower incomes disproportionately hard, and urged the Government to continue its assistance.
“We can’t afford to lose a single sector,” he concluded.
On its part, the opposition Nationalist Party lambasted the Government for failing to enter a fixed price agreement for the purchase of grain and forage, and called on it to intervene and make up for the price increases producers are subject to.
Toni Bezzina, spokesperson for Agriculture and Fishing, said that workers in the sector are reported price hikes in animal feed averaging as much as 50 per cent, and said that it is not right that consumers suffer from the increasing cost of living.
He added that apart from putting pressure on producers and consumers, local products’ rising prices render them less competitive against imported ones, which had already posed a threat.
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