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Tuesday, August 29, 2000
Australians angered by 'outrageous' Olympic food prices

By ROB GLOSTER -- Associated Press

 SYDNEY, Australia -- The humble meat pie is the snack of choice for Australian sports fans, as ubiquitous at stadiums Down Under as the hot dog is at American ballparks.

 The palm-sized pies are cheap, they're quick to eat and -- in most cases -- they're pretty tasty. And they seem to go down well with beer, also common at Australian stadiums.

 So it's not hard to imagine the reaction when Sydney Olympic organizers announced that meat pies, which normally sell for about $1.20 each, will cost $2.10 to $2.40 at next month's games.

 "It's outrageous. They're going to make a bit of a fortune from the Olympics," said Jamie Cahill, a free-lance sound engineer. "How many are you going to eat at that price?"

 Cahill and his buddy, cameraman Geoff Blee, devoured meat pies for lunch Tuesday along a wharf in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo. They bought the pies at Harry's Cafe de Wheels, the quintessential Sydney pie shop for more than half a century.

 A basic meat pie at Harry's, which has attracted celebrity customers ranging from Barbra Streisand to Elton John, costs about $1.25.

 "Meat pies are really working class. They're a tradesman's lunch," Cahill said. "What they're charging at the Olympics is exorbitant."

 Meat pies are Australia's traditional take-out food, the staple at sporting events such as Aussie Rules football. They can be round or square, about 21/2 inches across and an inch deep, and filled with all kinds of things. Chopped beef and mushroom is the most popular filling, but they also can be stuffed with curry, chicken, lamb, even vegetables.

 They're usually are topped with ketchup, and there is one version, called a "floater," where the pie is dropped in a bowl of thick pea soup.

 Michael Hannah, who has owned Harry's since 1988, said it costs anywhere from 25 to 40 cents to produce a meat pie -- depending on the quality of the meat and other ingredients.

 Harry's, which opened in 1938 and has been operating continuously since 1945, serves an average of 1,500 pies a day. It will stay open 24 hours a day during the Olympics, but won't raise its prices.

 At the Olympics, there are standard prices for refreshments at all venues. A schooner, or pint, of beer will cost $2.70 to $2.90 (the non-Olympic price is usually $1.95), and french fries will cost $2.10 to $2.40 (normally $1.30).

 "We think they're pretty steep for consumers. We think it's an example of what happens when you have monopoly pricing at an event like this," said Louise Petschler, the finance policy officer for the Australian Consumers Association.

 Petschler said her group looked at an average meal for two people at the Olympics -- a couple of meat pies, some fries and a couple of soft drinks -- and found it would cost about 75 percent more than usual at stadiums.

 The situation is compounded, she said, because spectators are limited in the kinds of food they can bring into Olympic stadiums. Coolers and bottles are banned for security reasons.

 "It seems this is a leap forward, this is a big markup," Petschler said. "When you have such limited choice, in terms of being able to bring in your own food, it's pretty outrageous."

 Olympic officials said the prices were set after months of intensive negotiations with caterers who proposed even higher prices.

 "I am not aware of another major event within Australia where there has been such strict scrutiny of proposed prices and where the price of every individual food and beverage item had to be justified and negotiated," said Hugh Taylor, the catering program manager for the Sydney Games.

 "I believe the prices are justified given the additional costs imposed by the staging of the Olympic Games. Further price reductions would have jeopardized the economic viability of the catering operation."

 Dominic Gonzales, a sign installer who eats once a week at Harry's, said there's "no way" he'd pay $2.10 for a meat pie.

 "All the prices, they've gone ballistic," added a coworker, Adam Were.

 But Ciaran Walsh, a hotel maintenance worker who said he takes a 15-minute lunch at Harry's almost every day, said the food and drink prices for the Olympics are not unusual for such a special event.

 "It's the same for big sporting events," Walsh said. "And if you go to a concert, you're going to play double what you would pay on the outside."

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