Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Adding Value, and Shopping with One’s Nose
24 July 2007, 11:53 am
Filed under: Economics of Eating, food politics, local v. industrial, Production

According to both Marion Nestle’s alarming book Food Politics and Felicity Lawrence’s equally shocking Not On The Label, the economic dilemma which faces the food supply chain is overproduction due to industrialized, highly efficient production techniques. According to Nestle the U.S. produces enough calories to feed the world twice over.

Given that the supply far outstrips the demand, consumers enjoy cheap prices for food. Each producer, processor, and retailer, however, is therefore faced with the problem of getting consumers to buy food from them rather than a competitor. Processors generally do this by “adding value” to food through processing, packaging, and marketing, while retailers rely on highly efficient and fluid chains of supply to keep prices down and consumers walking in the door.

The sort of value added by processors, however, has generally involved processing foods, adding fillers, sugars, and fats, and packaging foods in time-saving, ready-to-eat units. I think it uncontroversial to note that these fillers, sugars, and fats are on average unhealthy and contribute to increased incidence of overweight-related diseases in western countries. The packaging is also problematic in terms of contribution to landfills and, in the case of controlled atmosphere packaging, reduction in expected antioxidant levels.The cost of raw inputs (i.e., the actual food that goes into the final product sitting on the grocery store shelf) is only 20% of the production cost of the final product, according to the 2000 USDA Food Review. What does this mean? It means that U.S. consumers are paying food companies to “add value” by decreasing the nutritional yield relative to the calories consumed, and increase our exposure to ingredients which cause heart disease and cancer. We are paying extra for added empty calories, fats and carcinogens, and often, less flavor.

When I worked at Zingerman’s, the customers would often ask what was in John Loomis’ cream cheese that made it taste so much better than the sticky extruded cream cheese sold in the grocery store. I loved this question because I would show them that the ingredients in John’s cheese were milk, rennet, and salt. Industrial cream cheese is loaded with gums and fillers, emulsifiers and stabilizers, I would say, and you’re tasting the absence of those things.

In Not On The Label, Felicity Lawrence talks about coming back to the UK after two years in Afghanistan, and noticing an element missing from UK supermarkets: the smell of food. Moreover, noticing that shoppers rarely if ever checked their food by holding it close to their nose the way that shoppers in less developed parts of the world would.This is counterintuitive, particularly so because taste is such a smell-reliant sense. If we are shopping for flavor we should certainly be using our noses.

Thus it seems to me that local produce has an untapped advantage, and that producers who are able to bypass the supply chain and sell directly to consumers (e.g., through farmer’s markets, farm shares, and direct delivery) have an untapped marketing opportunity. When you buy local food you aren’t paying extra for processors to add heart-unhealthy ingredients, and you aren’t paying extra for plastic packaging, and you aren’t paying extra for less flavor, and you aren’t paying extra for fewer nutrients. In some cases, you aren’t paying extra at all.


2 Comments so far
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Re: the absence of smell. I notice this all the time, and have remarked on it for years to other people, only to get blank stares. Why doesn’t anything have a smell?

When I was little, I remember the wonderful smell of fresh peaches. Now?

Like the author mentioned, the only person who agreed with me was a young woman from Iran who had only recently arrived in the U.S.

Comment by One Disgusted Consumer

[…] is practically the same week after week — it never comes into season, it never gets ripe, it never smells like food. Doing a week’s worth of grocery shopping at the supermarket is pretty strictly a utilitarian […]

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