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Poland in Stew Over True Cost of Meat : Private Shops Complicate Financial--and Emotional--Equation

November 17, 1987|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — For about 40 cents an hour, Czeslaw Ziomek, 65, was working the other day at one of the new private meat stalls in Warsaw. A retired butcher, he was happy about being able to add to his pension, but he was not sure he liked the idea of a private meat market in Warsaw.

"The prices," Ziomek said, "are too high."

He folded his heavy arms across his blood-stained apron and asked his questioner to recall--"Please, sir, for a moment"--the hard times Poland's peasants went through before World War II.

"Before the war," he said, "I didn't see any meat at all. My father would go out to buy meat, but he would come back with bread. Now it is better."

It is better, Ziomek said, because Poland's Communist government now makes sure that every citizen of Poland is able to buy at least 2.5 kilograms of meat (5.5 pounds)every month from a state-run store at a strictly controlled price. Fifty years ago, Ziomek's father could only dream of such a thing.

So now Ziomek regards with suspicion any trend that might threaten the system. To him, the appearance of private meat shops in Poland is an ominous sign. After all, he is a pensioner. The pension does not go very far. What would happen if the price of meat suddenly shot up?

He gave his final verdict before taking up his knife to go back to work:"This new thing, it is a bit of a failure."

Nonetheless, the private meat shops seem to be a coming trend in Poland, notwithstanding the objections of people like Ziomek who regard the prices as shocking.

But the real cost of meat, in the present system, is beyond Ziomek's calculation. It may be beyond anyone's calculation.

Subsidies Questioned

About 60 private kiosks now sell meat at 16 different marketplaces in Warsaw and they are doing a booming business, despite prices that bring complaints from virtually all their customers. The prices range from two to three times the prices in the state meat stores, where government subsidies ensure the lowest prices.

Now that the Polish government is moving toward economic reform, the subsidies are being called into question and the public is worrying about the continued availability of relatively cheap food products.

According to Joanna Dynarzewska, an official in the mayor's office in Warsaw, there could be as many as 2,000 private meat sellers in the city within a year, or perhaps two. "It is," she says, "a kind of revolution."

Like most revolutions, it is not going to come without distress. Right now, shoppers pay the equivalent of about 63 cents a pound for boneless beef in a state-run store. A choice fillet sells for $1.20 a pound. Those prices sound low by Western standards, but Polish incomes are even lower.

The average worker's salary in Poland is about 27,000 zlotys a month, roughly $90, and economists here estimate that about 50%of that is spent for food.

"Meat has become the most popular topic of our home conversations," journalist Marek Przybylik wrote recently. "One must admit that, along with progress in the economy, the importance of the pig has been lifted to a strategic level."

A Warsaw housewife said: "Meat has always been an emotional issue to us. It is symbolic. It tells us whether things are good or bad."

And meat prices, or increased meat prices, have brought major social upheavals in Poland--a fact that no government here is ever likely to forget.

Very Sensitive Issue

In 1970, Premier Piotr Jaroszewicz went on television--on a Saturday evening, when the stores were closed--to announce an increase in the price of meat and other foodstuffs. By the following Wednesday, riots had broken out in Gdansk and led ultimately to the resignation of Wladjslaw Gomulka, Poland's Communist Party chief.

In 1976, when spontaneous demonstrations took place across the country following another round of price increases for meat, Edward Gierek, who replaced Gomulka, ordered the premier who announced the price increases to go back on television and rescind them.

With all that as background, the present government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is proceeding carefully as it tries to prepare the public for a general increase in prices that will accompany its economic reforms. In addition to widespread discussion in the press, a referendum is planned to ask voters to approve the government's reform plan.

Although details of the reform plan have not been made public, major elements are expected to be a reduction of state subsidies, an increase in private business activity and a greater reliance on market forces in setting prices.

The private meat markets, which have emerged in the last year, may turn out to be a kind of preview of what the government has in mind. Their appearance helps to illustrate some of the problems involved in restructuring the economy. And the reception the new markets have evoked demonstrates the resistance to change here, even among citizens who claim that, for the most part, they favor genuine reform.

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