Industrial Disease

On October 13, 2006, in Food and Drink, by psu

The other night, we visited one of our favorite local places, the Grand Canal Cafe. For years, they’ve done straightfoward Italian food with a particular emphasis on pastas. Karen had a craving for their speciality: a ground veal and spinach cannelloni with a tomato and bechamel sauce.

So we walk in the place, ready for happiness, and they don’t have the cannelloni. They have not had it for a couple of weeks because of the spinach scare.

In an unrelated incident a couple of weeks ago, we went to the Costco. Two images always stand out when I go to the Costco. The first is the floor to ceiling bins of electronic entertainment products (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube) that in some cases people were standing in line to buy on Ebay just a few months ago. For this particular trip, there were Guitar Hero guitars stacked up as high as the eye could see.

The second image that sticks with me are the industrial sized packages of “specialty foods.”

What Costco and this spinach scare have in common is that they bring the nature of our food distribution system into stark relief. Back in the day, the “organics movement” liked to wrap itself in a lot of rhetoric about sustainable practices, small volume farming, personal service and a generally high level of quality (and therefore cost). This was convenient when there was money to be made and niche luxury markets to grow.

But now organics are Big Business. And I think what we have learned is that Big Business is Big Business. Horizon and Organic Valley are everywhere. Dannon owns Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. Bags of organic spinach are everywhere except when they are pulled off the shelf for making people sick. Five years ago, in Pittsburgh, dozens of people got sick after eating contaminated vegetables at Chi-Chi’s. Today, it’s organic spinach. Organic food poisoning isn’t any better than the kind with pesticides

The lesson is, if there is money to be made as a niche luxury, there is even more money to be made by centralizing distribution, increasing volume, and generally pushing the product into the largest possible distribution channels. This means the huge restaurant purveyors (Sysco) and the huge retail outlets (Costco). This, more than anything, is the American Way. There is nothing that is specialized enough to avoid being turned into a supersized Costco Commodity if there is enough money to be made.

But, as we learned in Fast Food Nation, this kind of distribution is the ideal way for the bugs to get us. The fact that the organic food industry has fallen to into the same traps as the fast food industry must be a crushing blow to all of those self-important boomer granola munchers at the Whole Foods.

I think we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t espouse the ethical high ground of local food production and local distribution and still want conviently packaged inexpensive organic spinach year ’round at the food store. The reality is that smaller scale local food is more expensive and more limited. So, if you really want to take the high ground, you have to be willing to pay more and get less. There is no way around that.

Meanwhile, all I want is my god-damned cannelloni. Hopefully it will be back by next month.


12 Responses to “Industrial Disease”

  1. Corvus says:

    Because of our efforts to eat in a more healthy and responsible fashion, my wife and I’s grocery bill has nearly doubled over the last couple of years. Most people I talk to simply aren’t willing/able to do that.

    Personally, I find it worthwhile. My food tastes better and I am, by and large, healthier than the people around me.

  2. Corvus says:

    Oh… and we’ve been eating spinach thanks to our co-ops local farm.

  3. Laura says:

    Nat and I were looking to make a similar cannelloni last week, but couldn’t find the dratted noodles and had to settle for stuffed shells instead. Spinach, though, we just bought frozen, and made the cannelloni filling we would’ve made in any case.

    Really, what’s called for is a return to preservation — oh, no, wait.

    Honestly, I don’t think that it is more expensive to buy locally produced items. It’s more limited, yes, but I can buy an absolutely absurd quantity of vegetables for $10 at my local farmer’s market.

    The idea that organic or local or whathaveyou food costs more in money is, I think, misleading. It does tend to cost more in time (and possibly gas money); it’s not all in one convenient megamart, and it’s not all pre-cleaned and prepped for you, and you have to be willing to learn to do that kind of thing.

    But I think that people repeating the idea of local food costing more, etc. etc. drives away people who’d otherwise be willing to give it a shot. It’s like that ridiculous idea that we only use 10% of our brains; once the notion is planted, you can’t get rid of it, and it’s a damaging notion.

  4. zp says:

    Lindy (blog named Toast) and I have posted often on the local (to Pittsburgh) organic CSA farm box, aka Kretschmann’s. She seems to have gotten it for a few years; this is our first year, though. Anyway, pound for pound I think it’s cheaper than Giant Eagle. Or WF.

    The limitations to it are real – as you say, there simply is no local year round spinach. And sometimes the food doesn’t look so pretty. And the Kretschmann’s actually felt they needed to explain why to some of their customers this year (they have a newsletter) . . . The newsletter also had some very measured, very thoughtful things to say about e.coli and distribution practices . . .

    I just started shopping more regularly at the WF here (I avoided it for a few years but . . .) and I was surprised. Even compared to other WFs I shopped at a few years ago in other towns, the Pittsburgh store carries, if possible, even less local produce than I anticipated.

    They are supporting the library though!

  5. zp says:

    ps. And as for time and gas, as Laura mentioned, farm box delivery is a real boon!!!

  6. psu_13 says:

    I think it’s true that on a small scale local foods may not be more costly in terms of pure money (as opposed to the time it takes to find them).

    But I don’t see how you can avoid the economies of scale argument when you push this out nation wide. How do you get local organic produce to (say) rural northern PA in a cost effective way?

    I obviously have no gripe with local food, and have been doing my bit for it for a long time. My stronger gripe is with people who apply regular business practices to “organics” with the idea of selling people on something that is impossible: large scale production of local organic food.

  7. I’m glad I live in Santa Monica — Our farmer’s market spinach’s verified ecoli free :)

  8. psu says:

    This piece n the NYT makes some good points about this subject

  9. Doug says:

    My local farmer’s coop is about 1/2 to 1/3 the price of all the stores in the area. Ditto with everyone elso on no year-round spinach of course. The monetary problem with the mega-distribution model is the price of gas (which will hopefully double in the next few years). The food out of my garden is even cheaper! And the tomato sauce made from those tomatoes is excellent.

  10. Christina says:

    I get the Kretschmann’s farm share too. I was amused by their newsletter that said, in effect, that there’s no way to guarantee that food is pathogen-free, but that if their produce did make us sick or kill us, it would be much easier to identify the culprit.

    So _very_ reassuring, but I give them full points for treating their customers like adults.

  11. zp says:

    I really liked the e.coli note; no outrage, no outrageous promises. I was a little more surprised by the recent, um, “labor” note . . .

  12. Kim says:

    Kretschmann’s is great, but they aren’t the only CSA players in Pittsburgh. Harvest Valley Farms is another option. We’ve used both and have been happy either way. Using Harvest Valley at the moment. URL is what you might expect.