Supply and demand

A digression from the usual subject matter here into politics; I’ve seen a lot of near-racist drivel (and some outright racist drivel too) floating around about Subway, and now The Sun is trying to stir up more much with their story about Halal chicken in Pizza Express, which is not news, and not the exclusive they think it to be, considering it’s something the company made clear a long time ago.

Idiots online are bemoaning Subway, claiming that the sandwich chain has “banned pork to avoid offending Muslims.” It’s the usual typical nonsense, that goes hand in hand with the stories about Christmas being banned for the same reason. Making up these stories – and yes, they are made up – helps feed a tide of xenophobia and make divisions in our society. It tries to set aside one group of people as something other than the rest.

The original inflammatory story about Subway was, as far as I can gather, in the Mail, and referred to “Muslim demands” that the store sell only Halal meat. And, of course, using “demands” in a headline makes it sound like there were angry Muslims, and pickets, and threats.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was something the Mail usually quite likes – market forces, or the law of supply and demand. The story talked of 185 branches of Subway selling Halal-only meat. That sounds like quite a lot, doesn’t it? We must be practically taken over by these nasty Muslim-friendly branches (actually, franchises) of Subway. Except we’re not. There are over 1500 outlets across the UK and Ireland (2012 figures, from the Subway website); the company has an intention to increase that to 2,000 by 2015. So we’re talking 10% of branches.

Contrary to what some hysterical people have been claiming, those branches do have window stickers to let people know meat is Halal; if you want to avoid it, you can. If, say, you have a principled objection to the method of slaughter, rather than an unprincipled objection to Muslims, because you think they’re nasty and just not British. But in that case, I’d expect you to avoid Kosher products too, and probably battery hens, and many other things with dubious welfare standards. Unless you just want to pick on one aspect, that happens to fit nicely around your other prejudices, so you can dress up a bit of good old Muslim bashing with a cloak of “but what about the poor animals.”

Let’s try a little thought experiment which, I think, pretty accurately sums up what has happened at Subway:

• Someone buys a bar in a nice sunny part of Spain. It sells all sorts of things, including lovely local tapas

• Lots of English people keep coming to the bar, and instead of wanting tapas, they ask for English food

• Eventually, there are so many people doing that, that the bar owner, realising he can make money, gets lots of it in stock

• Hardly anyone ever goes there for tapas any more

• In the end, the few bits of tapas in the fridge never get used, so the bar owner stops selling it

Not really a big deal, is it? Unless you love tapas. But even if you loved tapas, wouldn’t you think “that’s just supply and demand”? It’s how the market is supposed to work.

Wouldn’t it be a bit of a leap of the imagination to say “Expat demands make bar stop selling tapas” ? Especially if you knew that doing so would give ammunition to plenty of people telling folk that the English should go back home, or learn to eat the same way the Spanish do.

All that’s happened here is that – in around 10% of Subway stores – the franchisee has decided that they’ll do better business by selling Halal meat. (While in other countries, they have Halal stores, and Kosher stores, and some for other dietary rules). And in the other 90% of stores, nothing’s changed. Nothing’s been “banned because of Muslims”, nothing’s being forced on people who don’t want it. Some stores are selling things that their customers have asked for. You want bacon, then why don’t you go into a sandwich shop and ask for it? Don’t just moan that a store you don’t go to, and probably never will, has decided to listen to  requests from customers who do visit.

This isn’t “Sharia law” coming to Britain. It’s not something being banned because of Muslims. It’s a big business tweaking the product lineup in some areas to sell more of the things that make them and their franchisees money.

But that, of course, isn’t anywhere near as good a story.

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