The economic crisis has squeezed household budgets right across Europe. With unemployment at record levels and wages depressed, most people are feeling the pinch in their grocery bills. Nevertheless, the cost of food relative to earnings has never been as low as it is in Europe today. In the UK, for example, food prices on average are about 10% of disposable household income, whereas 50 or 60 years ago they were roughly 25-30%.

A growing number of experts argue that food prices today don’t reflect the real cost to society, for example in terms of health costs, resource use and environmental impact. Some even argue that food is too cheap and governments need to take responsibility to correct this. Do you agree? And if so, can this be done in a way that doesn’t unfairly impact the poorest in society?

Debating Europe – in partnership with LiveWell for LIFE – is currently looking at sustainable consumption, including how eating habits can have an impact on health, food security and the environment. Don’t forget to send us YOUR questions and comments in the form below, and we’ll add them to the debate. We’re continuing our series today with a look at food prices and sustainability.

Let’s start with a comment from Paul, who thinks the EU should leave questions of food, public health and sustainability alone. Paul argues that EU interference just means more regulation and controls which equals more expensive food for the customer.

We put this comment to Matteo Bartolini, a farmer from Italy and President of the European Council of Young Farmers. As a farmer who deals with EU regulation on a daily basis, how would he respond to Paul?

bartoliniThe same set of rules for all 28 Member States is less burdensome than 28 entirely different sets of rules and regulations. So the truth is quite the opposite – EU harmonization which allows for healthy competition could potentially drive prices down. And the reason for high prices, most of the time, is to be found in the long food chain, not in EU regulation.

We also spoke to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University. Professor Lang is the man who coined the term ‘food miles’ to describe the distance food travels to reach our dinner tables, and he’s well known for his work on food sustainability. He agrees with Matteo Bartolini that more regulations don’t always mean higher prices:

We also had a couple of comments complaining about how inefficient food chains affect the pricing of food in Europe. Thomas argued that European farmers have very little control of the actual final cost of food produce, and they often earn only a very small percentage of the retail price. Corrado agreed, saying it is a “scandal” how small a share of the shelf price goes to farmers compared to a long chain of intermediaries. We put these comments to Matteo Bartolini to see how he would respond:

bartoliniI would agree with Thomas. Past practices have fallen short of providing producers with decent prices at farm gate level, with farmers often getting a fraction of what the consumer pays. However, young farmers in particular are attempting to shorten this chain and find innovative solutions to the lack of bargaining power producers are faced with today.

Young farmers employ methods such as direct selling in order to improve the functioning of the food chain, while bringing consumers closer to producers and giving them more understanding of where their food comes from. Many young farmers are also looking to increased co-operation with others in the form of cooperatives and other producer organisations in order to maximise their bargaining power and foster their own marketing strategies and business initiatives in a competitive market with increasing demand for high quality, diverse and safe food.

Professor Lang agreed, telling us he believes the food chain system in Europe exploits farmers and concentrates control in the hands of a few retailers. He argued that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy needs to shift into being a “Common Sustainable Food Policy” in order to better oversee these supply chains because they’re “too powerful and too out-of-control”.

Finally, we had a comment sent in from Jakub, who thinks the majority of people choose the food they buy because it is cheap and not because it’s sustainable. How would Professor Lang respond?

Ultimately, Professor Lang argued that Europe needed to engage in a politically difficult but vital debate around sustainability and food prices:

LANGWe now know that food is too cheap. We’re paying through the health taxation or insurance bill. We’re paying for environmental damage. And some of the damage we’re not paying for at all! So, there is now a very important and politically difficult argument to have – a debate we must have. Is it a good thing for food to get more expensive? And I’m one of those people who says: ‘Yes’.

But we also need to think very much about divided Europe. The gap between the rich and poor is astronomic. Indeed, since the rise of neo-liberal thinking over the last 30 or 40 years, the mega-rich have got even richer… But, food is cheap, historically. That’s brought advantages. But it’s now too cheap and we’ve got to think about the poor when we think about what we want for a good and properly priced food system.

Is Europe paying for cheap food prices through higher health taxation and insurance bills? Is it time to have an important but politically difficult debate about sustainability and food prices? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Class M Planet

131 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Lur Psicopunk

    I don’t know what some people (like the one who wrote the title of this article) consider cheap or expensive. But in my opinion, food in EU is NOT cheap. Moreover, the price of things depends on people’s salaries and taking into account that each time, more European Countries become poorer and poorer, what some of you may consider cheap, for others, that same thing may be impossible to pay.

    • avatar
      Rick Hoppmann

      Very good point! In Germany this gap is quite visible, with the people in the western part making a much higher salary, then the people in the east.

  2. avatar

    You’re proving the point of Professor Lang … this is a politically very difficult debate to have … but 40% of food is being wasted and it has historically never been as cheap as it is today (as a percentage of wages) … we also ARE paying for cheap food … but the costs are indirect.

    … Maybe it’s politically impossible to ever raise food prices … or maybe this is the wrong time to consider it … but it’s worth at least discussing.

  3. avatar
    Jaume Roqueta

    well I belive is too cheap… if we compare with the price of 10 minutes of a doctor visit!.. obiously, most of the food comes from poor countries or from slavery in the south of spain!

  4. avatar
    Borislav Valkov

    The EU market creates disbalance making those who earn *000 euro per month pay similar prices as those who earn *00 per month. So can someone explain how those earning 10 times better then the others can pay equal prices and call the prices cheap?

  5. avatar
    Rui Jamp

    WTF? come and get your salary in Portugal, then buy in Portugal… Cheap? Are you nuts? Are you fighting to give more money to the super rich that own those companies?
    EU is the biggest enemy of common people that try to survive each day.

  6. avatar
    Marisa Melo

    What? All of you don’t are thinking in people that are in crisis in EU that have no way of pay a bread or a water or other things for feed herself and her families…. that is the basic of human body! All of you don’t are thinking on that…you don’t imagine what people are doing to survive! They are millions in EU…just in Portugal we have so much people like that…

  7. avatar
    Laszlo Nagy

    Well, according to researches, there are 80 million poor people in the EU, so more expensive food would have an effect some way.

    To eat more sustainably and healthy, we could manage food industry regulations. Each country has regulations defining foods, for example if a milk product can be considered cheese, or is just cheese-like.
    If these regulations are modified in the direction of higher quality requirements, farmers could also profit more because of the need for more natural ingredients.

    • avatar
      Laszlo Nagy

      Altough some might still rememeber the EU’s attempt to set rules about how curved cucumbers can be considered cucumber, and the EC Commission Regulation No 2257/94, about bent bananas. In this question, there probaly would be very different opinions among the population.

    • avatar
      Iulia Luca

      Yes, I agree with you entirely but something must be done so they can directly profit from the result of their work (less intermediaries and better quality, in terms of freshness). In order to become expensive, it should become higher in quality!

  8. avatar
    Giannis Lainas

    just reading the headline making me boil in anger….its evident that you live in your fantasy world…whover wrote this and whoever is backing this site and allows this kind of articles to be published

  9. avatar
    Michel Pianon

    Raise taxes on unhealthy food. Discourage people to go eat fastfood and encourage them to eat vegetables and fruits (Organic of course)

  10. avatar
    Yolanda Loureiro

    it’s too expensive. Let’s produce more food in the best countries and not in France where the soils and weather are not apropriate for that

  11. avatar
    mark stein

    I live in an ex-industrial town an hour north of Manchester with severe unemployment. The nearest supermarket to my house has just been sold by the Coop to a smaller supermarket operator. On the rare occasions when I go inside it I am struck by the almost complete absence of fresh fruit and vegetables and the enormous range and quanitities of snack foods on the shelves. Twenty different types of crisps and other savoury snacks – very high in fat and salt. Fifty differerent types of chocolate bars and biscuits – very high in sugar and fat. Maybe fifteen types of fizzy drinks – packed full of sugar. I think these foods should be made subject to Value Added Tax. Such unhealthy foods are too cheap.

    The other category of food which I think is too cheap is red meat. Whether beef or lamb or pigmeat most people are habituated to eat it every day. They are very high in saturated fat. Meat consumption is also bad for the planet. Consumption of such foods should be made more expensive. Eu subsidies for production of beef and lamb should be withdrawn. And there should be a tax on consumption of red meat.
    There should be public money directed at teaching people how to cook delicious, nourishing and environmentally friendly vegetarian – or still better vegan – meals.

  12. avatar
    Carlos V Arc

    I’m sorry, but that was dark dark humour question :-( I can tell you in my country every week there’s more and more people on charity food dining services, organised both by ONG’s and Catholic institutions, and it’s on the growth on every city here, cause many people can’t afford to eat well and healthy by their own money… 8-10 years ago only the poorest and homeless people did that, now it’s widely common. So if food is so “cheap” in EU, why is this happening on the rise?? I don’t know where in Europe do you live if you made that kind of question seriously.

    • avatar

      Oh yea?
      Come to Romania see how “cheap” it is.
      50% of minimum wage goes on food alone.

      You guys in Greece have it well, trust me.

  13. avatar
    David Lulasa

    African food has been stored in space and there are no rockets…because of the people in the west and east who dont know capitalism and communism,yet they still want the two cs

  14. avatar
    Mário Lobo

    WE pay YOU for this sort of intelectual reasoning?
    how can you even pose such a question about a group of countries as in European Union where in some places the nacional minimum wage is 10x bigger than in others?
    find a job

  15. avatar
    Janet Linda Darbey

    Why are people in Greece spending less on food than they did years ago? Because most of them do not have the money to spend on food, it has been taken off them to pay the country?s debts and bail out the greedy politicians and bankers. Tell the old people in Greece that food is too cheap , when they are living out of the dustbins outside Lidl supermarket all winter and eating the food that they have scooped out of the bins.

  16. avatar
    David Fuzzey

    more petty eu interference , your union has done more than enough damage already , time for it to shut the Frak up and go away.

  17. avatar

    So most people seem to be commenting that because people cannot afford food it is not too cheap. You misunderstand the point I think. Being able to afford food is mainly an income issue, which is affected by many EU policies. Producing cheap food as per the dominating industrialising model may produce “cheap” food in terms of €, but the cost is basically subsidised by the tax payer. So for instance, mac donalds may be cheap, but we are not taking into account the environmental costs of farming to produce that burger or the health costs of fast food to national health systems. So basically, you and me, and the 80 million poor europeans are subsidising so that hamburgers cost 1 € while everyone except the people at the top loses. If the european agricultural policy were to subsidies agroecological farming and incorporate externalities to the price of food, perhaps food would be a little more expensive, but countries would save vast amounts of money on healthcare that could be diverted into providing income for the poorest, farms would employ more people and middle men (ie vast corporations that pocket most of the profit) would see their profits reduced for the benefit of farmers that actually contribute greatly to the local economy.

    The reality is that on average, food is cheap. It takes around 10% of our income. Of course this is not everyone’s reality and recent austerity policies are largely to blame. But it does not seem unreasonable to come closer to true cost accounting for agriculture, which is the basis of the subsistence of mankind and is currently destroying much of the environment. Dont forget that we all pay the bill: recent floods in the UK could have been far less damaging if agriculture was practiced sustainably.

  18. avatar
    Angelos Exadactylos

    Do not even think of touching more the food prices. Last time that EU did that the food prices sky rocketed. Stop it now and remove it from the debate

    • avatar
      George Yianntsiotis

      I fully agree with you! The administrator of the site though it is April 1st and is joking!

  19. avatar
    catherine benning

    Not as cheap as it would be if it wasn’t imported from thousands of miles away, creating an unhealthy footprint and where checking its health is expensive and very difficult to do.

    All food for European consumption must be produced within the borders of European states. Where this is impossible has to be rethought and brought into line with the requirements of European standards which are then checked thoroughly and often.

  20. avatar
    Nora Eördöghbeördöghy-Kiss

    Where are you from crazy people? And what europe do you represent? Not the east and south, for sure! A united europe is only possible with integrated thinking. What takes europe to a bigger and bigger crisis is that it never takes into account the south and east as thinking and capable and as existing!!!

  21. avatar
    Alex Stan

    joking aside. food is very, very expensive in Romania. People can’t even afford to buy fruit anymore, let alone other staples of a healthy diet such as fish, fresh veggies or olive oil..Not to mention the fact that we spend most of our income on food…increase food price more and people might go ape :|

  22. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    NO! The French-inspired CAP along with the horrendous German AUSTERITY BLITZKRIEG have made food prices in the EU way, way too expensive.

    • avatar

      The french inspired CAP were actually a good thing.
      AUSTERITY is the real idiocy.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      The French-inspired CAP was not 100% bad BUT it forces people in the UK and the continent to pay TOO much for food.

  23. avatar
    Paul X

    Personally the claim that food is “10% of disposable income” is a crock of sh!te

    Firstly how can food be taken into account as coming from disposable income?… disposable income is what people have left after all the essentials have been taken into consideration and I would say that food is pretty essential to stay alive

    ….and it may be 10% if you happen to live next door to a discount supermarket but most people have to travel to get their food or pay for it to be delivered, add that cost onto the weekly budget

    …and it may be 10% if you live on raw veg and biscuits, but most people like cooked food so add in the soaring energy costs as well

    …and the whole issue of food has been completely messed up by the EU from day one, remember butter mountains, wine lakes etc etc?…… how can an institution be so incompetent as to subsidise agriculture with billions of pounds or taxpayers money yet people still end up paying more for their food?…most of which comes from the other side of the world anyway

  24. avatar
    Quiterio Alberto Báez Benítez

    Decreasing food prices, instead increase quality and healthy food, thats for food industry and its lobbies. Higher is the demand on medical services, higher the vault in Public Health will be.

  25. avatar
    Alexander Zaragoza

    TOO CHEAP? Are you CRAZY? Here in Spain we have the best food in the world but can’t afford to buy it. Many people make 400 Euros a month working full time positions. People here eat any shit they can afford.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Alexander Zaragoza
      ‘Best food in the world’? What about France?

  26. avatar
    Stavros Pagonidis

    So guaranteeing the quality of food and the health of consumers, automatically means more expensive food?
    Looks like the lobbyists have won before we even start the debate.

  27. avatar
    Frankie Babyee

    Well…I live in Greece and the food is so expensive, and the pay is so little here (the average person makes 500 euros a month), we have to settle for the unhealthy starchy foods like pastas and potatoes to eat just to make it month to month. If I could afford it, I would be eating gluten free and organic vegetables/fruits, but thanks to the eugenicist shadow elite, they are slowly killing off the have-not population by design.

  28. avatar
    Bruno Nunes

    The person launching this debate is completly out of touch with reality… People eat what they can afford. If Europe wants to be the shinning beacon of humanity, it should work to assure that no basic human need should ever be denied to any person inside its boundaries (without the use of money, not everything has to be a business). But instead of that it’s main concern is to obey the “markets” wishes. Even tho the markets are just another world for tge stinky rich. Oligarchy 101….

  29. avatar
    Pedro Celestino

    Are you joking with us? Specially healthy food isnt cheap at all?

    If farmers are getting ill paid that is because further in the distribution chain the some people are getting way to much profit…

  30. avatar
    Borislav Valkov

    Bulgaria- we earn average 300 euro per month. What exactly do you think will happen if we are forced to buy food for 400-500 euro per month?

  31. avatar

    Junk food is cheap. Sodas are cheap. Sugar products are cheap. But this is not food. It’s empty calories that make you fat and deteriorate one’s long term health. Real food with actual nutritional value is not cheap.

  32. avatar
    Cla Carr

    It is not the price of the food that has to decrease but all the salaries of the workers have to democratically increase in this fcking EU. Are we tryin to be the next Indo-China?

  33. avatar
    Perttu Saraniva

    In Finland food is still bit expensive, because there are two large supermarket chains S and K that have usually decided the prize, plus arctic climate and location (long transport routes to foreign goods). Luckily Lidl has increased competition and companies have special price offers and more cheaper products. I would like to see fourth chain with meaningful market share in the business. Small Suomen Lhikauppa chain has lost it’s market share, because it is bit expensive shop to buy food. It was bad that S-Market bought Spars. We need second foreign chain besides Lidl.

  34. avatar

    Not at all, it look like quite expensive overall. But the prices/spending might vary from a country to another and from a customer to another. Some might prefer only Beluga Caviar, other just boiled potatoes. There are countries addicted to fish/sea food other on wheat, potatoes or rice, etc. To a certain point (food) commodities can vary prices according to the season. Home cooking vs “going out” it’s another factor that might influence monthly spending on food and so on. However, usually you get what you pay for.

  35. avatar
    nando aidos

    Is food too cheap in the European Union?
    No it is not.
    Regarding retailers – a recent survey by QUERCUS, a Portuguese NGO, indicated that about 5% of the price goes to the farmer, another 20% goes to the producer, about 35% goes to the transporter/intermidiary and about 40% goes to the distributor/retailer. So I agree with Thomas, the retailers, the big surfaces, gobble up the lion’s share of the price/cost.
    As to what people buy – most people buy on price. Very few people buy on healthy grounds. Most of these people buy very unbalanced, if not outright unhealthy, food baskets out of sheer ignorance and myth.

  36. avatar
    Gohar Sargsyan

    Food is NOT cheap in Europe. In the Netherlands people living near the Borders try to buy food in the neighboring countries which is also not cheep but less expensive.

  37. avatar
    Eugenio Franzoni

    bigger problem was different, to different quote change from old owned national money…… i’m italian….. in 2002 1 DM was 970 it.lira, Germans change +/- i DM for 1 euro….. like 970 it lira,,,,, portugal escudo must, in these time, 40 EP for 1 lira, and portugal chamge 400 EP for 1 euro…. like 10 lira….. we in itali payed for 1 euro 1927,36 it lira….. we are more stupids of europe union?

  38. avatar
    Eugenio Franzoni

    bigger problem was different, to different quote change from old owned national money…… i’m italian….. in 2002 1 DM was 970 it.lira, Germans change +/- i DM for 1 euro….. like 970 it lira,,,,, portugal escudo must, in these time, 40 EP for 1 lira, and portugal chamge 400 EP for 1 euro…. like 10 lira….. we in itali payed for 1 euro 1927,36 it lira….. we are more stupids of europe union?

  39. avatar

    And then you have idiots like Mario Draghi around, who in order to vastly enrich Goldman Sachs, wants to create inflation so ordinary people have to pay more for food and other essentials whilst Goldman makes out like bandits as always.

    Inflation is bad.

  40. avatar

    So let me get this right.
    We ship food over from thousands of miles away burning tons of pollutants and destroying the environment when we could grow our food locally within the EU because “profits”…but somehow..FOOD IS TOO CHEAP?
    Did you know a considerable percentage of Europeans now spend 50% of their income on FOOD alone? No?
    Yeah they do.

    Food is not “too cheap” – PROFITS FOR RICH BASTARDS are too high !
    85 richest people have more money and wealth than 3,5 billion poorest and you call that not a problem !?

  41. avatar

    This is unbelievable!
    Why isn’t one of the question being asked here:
    “Are the profits of corporations too high for the common good?”

    I bet you’d see a LOT of very enthusiastic replies from people all over Europe ready to give you a piece of their mind on the LEECHES we’ve had to deal with for the past 6-7 years !
    What’s next? Malthusian logic?
    Poor people who can’t afford food should die off?

    This is Europe not FASCIST America, and i’ll be damned if we let it turn into a playground for victorian style inequality !

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      Yes, the profits of corporations are in SOME instance too high, just as SOME small farms are too inefficient to be run at a REASONABLE profit.

      BOTH the corporations AND the small farmers must change.

  42. avatar
    Julian Georgiou

    Most stupid argument I ever heard. If you want people to eat more healthy educate them better don’t take their food away. Vegan people can not dictate to everyone else what to eat and how to enjoy life.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Julian Georgiou
      Hmmm, have you ever thought about the fact that some people are educated [indeed MANY people are better educated than YOU or I] BUT they simply cannot afford to buy EXPENSIVE food period!

  43. avatar
    Florence Egal

    In this time of change and consumerism, consumers need to revisit the allocation of their budget. We spend increasing amounts in terms of information technology or medicine (including food supplements) and end up eating (excessive) amounts of low-quality food to make ends meet. Is this ultimately the right choice? Eating less often and more limited quantities of good local foods would probably make more sense. Ask the Italians.
    The issue of sustainable diets is a highly political one and it is urgent that the European parliament is held accountable by its electorate for giving it adequate attention (European citizens can thus play a double role as consumers deciding what food they want to eat, and by their vote). Lobbies have until now had a major influence on EU decisions , and while the private sector certainly has a key role to play, they will always be exposed to conflict of interest issues.

  44. avatar

    A political action on food would be much more efficient than other actions, in health for instance.

  45. avatar

    The more centralized Europe is getting the most crisis will affect the people in all stages of life.
    Better life means capable people with respect in charge at all levels in all countries

  46. avatar

    Goldman Sachs knows ,ask Mario Dragi , they speculate on our food supply every day filling thier koffers with our hard earned money . And of course monsanto knows this all to well, seed patents , owning the food supply, the new feeding trough for the elite, just ask junker!

  47. avatar
    Paulo Especial

    I, at least, use a ratio on both options…

    While I can spare the money I go with the HEALTHY option… but when I start becoming “thin” economically then I go with the CHEAP option.

    We need BETTER and more COMPREHENSIBLE LABELS that state what really matters and from WHERE come the items that compose the content and packaging!

  48. avatar
    Gavin Williams

    Can you stop using average UK wage it’s meaningless, there are more than a few people bumping that average up who don’t even need know how much their food costs.

  49. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    Never eat anything with an EU flag stuck in it no matter what the price is. It could be made from horse, cat,donkey or god knows what.

  50. avatar
    Breogán Costa

    Usually people I think choose the tastier option (according their personal likes), they only remember of healthy food when Dr. say something bad.
    Actually, there are nice ways to cook healthy food making it tasty. But usually people goes for the easiest option, that, actually, tend to be the less healthier (just look around and check how many fast food restaurants there are and how many restaurants offering healthy food)

  51. avatar
    Gatis Gailitis

    Healthy. Healthy food has to be cheaper though. Make it cheaper and make unhealthy food dearer.

  52. avatar
    Stella Kontogianni

    This is the only serious advantage of leaving in Mediterranean, food is healthy and easy to find it, especially those who don’t live in big cities. Although Mediterranean diet is already protected by UNESCO as a intagible herritage monument, it is quite more expensive than junk food (hamburgers and chips) Most of Med citizens prefer olive oil instead of any other kind, bread, fish and all vegitables. When lenders demanded increase in pasta prises due to VAT 23%, it would be a real disaster for all of us.

  53. avatar
    Alex Lexva

    I agree with proper checks and regulation into what goes in our food whether it is a polluted water supply or dire conditions in animal husbandary

  54. avatar
    Valeria Greenhouse

    It depends on nationality :D i’m italian so bad quality “food” is not “food” for me. We are what we eat… other northern countries may thing this is not true, as a matter of fact they die earlier then us.

  55. avatar
    Bruno Martins

    I prefered helthy. But, sometimes, there is no choice…most of people , with these crises…choose the cheap one

  56. avatar
    Lynda Germon

    Please don’t talk to me about EU prices no two countries havê the same minimum wage or the same health standards !

  57. avatar
    David Valen

    Healthy food for the people who can afford it, cheap food for the others. It’s how it work in our fabulous EU.

  58. avatar
    Tina Clark

    Lazy comes to mind, whats quick easy.
    Vegetables on offer
    Rice. .

  59. avatar
    Buj Alex

    in general !! peopple choose tasty! cheap … or healthy … is for the poor or wealthy … or a measure of how much you would invest in your food !!

  60. avatar
    Adri Hulshoff

    I would be in favor of paying the real costs of food. Stop subsidizing the European agricultural sector. Open the market for African producers. Close the market for manipulated food from the States.
    One of the real solutions for the African refugee problems is economic growth in Africa.

    • avatar
      Iulia Luca

      Yes, I agree but very hard to be applied, don’t you think?

  61. avatar
    Rick Hoppmann

    In order for this pricing system to work, I think the prices need to scale with the average salary in a country/region.
    In Germany we have for example a large gap in salaries between the historical western and eastern part, yet in the eastern part the costs of living are much lower.

    • avatar
      Iulia Luca

      It is the same case revealed in Romania. So they should lower the prices here a little, as the whole salary goes on food. I do not think food is the only thing a human being needs!

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