Industrial Disease

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.