Hard times take meat out of E. German shopping bags

Herr Normalverbraucher (''ordinary customer'') is having trouble finding meat , high-fat butter, and bicycle pumps in East Germany. He is hopeful, however, that raisins and almonds - which have all but vanished in the past two months - will be back in stores for Christmas baking.

The government will probably comply with the latter wish, although it can't do much about the more basic shortages of milk, cheese, rice, and noodles. It has already ordered a raid on central stocks for one surge of goods in late October, and the grapevine has it that all the raisins and almonds are being saved for a second, pre-holiday surge on the market.

The East German economy is running into hard times, and the man on the street feels it right in the shopping bag. The culprits are the Polish dollar debts, Soviet reductions in fuel deliveries, a drastic curtailing of imports, diseased cattle, the inefficiencies of a centralized command economy, and hoarding.

These things have to be seen in perspective, of course. East Germany's industrial growth rate of 4.2 percent so far this year is probably the highest in Europe, East or West. And the average East German, after a 33 percent rise in meat consumption in the 1970s to an impressive 90 kilograms (198 pounds) a year, eats and lives more comfortably than any other Eastern European or Soviet citizen.

Unfortunately for the East Berlin government, however, the perspective that the East German Normalverbraucher employs is not that of Warsaw or Moscow, but the Hamburg and Munich he sees on his TV screen every night.

If he is attentive, he knows that East Germans average only 43 percent of West German net incomes (a drop from the 78 percent of 20 years ago), that East German output is only 46 percent of West Germany's, its productivity only 60 or 70 percent. If he's not attentive, he still gets the impression that even those 2 million unemployed West Germans can buy the pork and raisins in stores that he can't.

The deteriorating consumer situation in East Germany has several causes. The most basic, in a way, is Poland.

Warsaw's near default on its Western debts jolted Western banks into doubting credit worthiness throughout a Soviet-Eastern European world that now owes some (with Western debts running an some $10 billion) is having a hard time raising even ordinary supplier credits.

East Berlin has therefore cut imports drastically and stepped up export of goods that would normally go to the home market. This program has been successful; it is running a surplus in hard-currency trade for the second year in a row, with exports exceeding imports by 3.8 billion marks ($1.5 billion) in the first 10 months of 1982.

The program has squeezed the East German consumer, however. Imports of consumer goods were among the first items to be dropped. And this year's 15 percent reduction in high-quality imports from America seems to have led to a significant reduction in the weight of slaughtered livestock.

Then as shortages of foodstuffs have developed in different parts of the country, customers have taken to hoarding whatever appears in stores, thereby increasing the pressure of unsatisfied demand on available supply. Added to this has been the downward adjustment as the Soviet Union pulls out of its 1970s subsidization of Eastern European energy bills. The price of Soviet oil is shooting up this year and next under the pricing formula averaging the previous five years of Western costs.

At the same time, the Soviet Union has cut its volume of oil exports to Eastern Europe (down from 19 to 17 million tons for East Germany in 1982), diverting the difference to the West for hard currency. East Germany has had to make do with the resulting 12 percent drop in diesel fuel by such measures as transporting perishables by train rather than truck - and bearing the much higher spoilage.

Down on the farm all these economic strains have been exacerbated by organizational mistakes and several negative developments. The overall grain harvest this year was good, at a record 10 million plus metric tons.

But the grain fodder crop was poor, and the potato and sugar beet harvests were below average. In the northern part of the country there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Most seriously, the giant collective farms that totally separate livestock raising and crop farming are working very badly, as a number of officials have been admitting.

Figures recently released show astounding stall losses of 1.7 million pigs in the first 10 months of this year, including 646,000 piglets in the first six months, or 9.3 percent of the total piglets being raised.

In this pork-eating part of the world there is a smaller cattle population, but here, too, losses are proportionally heavy, at 182,000 for the first 10 months.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.