The Food Revolution is Taking Prisoners

My soon-to-be-released book American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution makes the case that the food revolution in the U.S. is broad and deep and has the potential to reshape our attitudes  toward time, work, industrial food production,  sustainability, and pleasure. This recent piece in the NY Times lends substantial support to portions of that thesis:

General Mills will drop all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals. Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farm have begun to limit the use of antibiotics in their chicken. Kraft declared it was dropping artificial dyes from its macaroni and cheese. Hershey’s will begin to move away from ingredients such as the emulsifier polyglycerol polyricinoleate to “simple and easy-to-understand ingredients” like “fresh milk from local farms, roasted California almonds, cocoa beans and sugar.”

Furthermore, the article reports that consumers are turning away from established brands:

Per capita soda sales are down 25 percent since 1998, mostly replaced by water. Orange juice, a drink once seen as an important part of a healthy breakfast, has seen per capita consumption drop 45 percent in the same period. It is now more correctly considered a serious carrier of free sugar, stripped of its natural fibers. Sales of packaged cereals, also heavily sugar-laden, are down over 25 percent since 2000, with yogurt and granola taking their place. Frozen dinner sales are down nearly 12 percent from 2007 to 2013. Sales per outlet at McDonald’s have been on a downward spiral for nearly three years, with no end in sight.

People in the food business now refer to the inside aisles of the supermarket where packaged foods are sold as “the morgue”, as the the popularity of perimeter aisles filled with fresh ingredients soars.

And the future of industrial food is not looking bright:

42 percent of millennial consumers, ages 20 to 37, don’t trust large food companies, compared with 18 percent of non-millennial consumers who feel that way.

Industrial food is responding by introducing new products,  and buying up smaller, health food brands. Will that be enough to stem the decline? The authors of article say no but suggest that industrial food can save itself by getting religion:

Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings…McDonalds needs to do more than use antibiotic-free chicken. The back of the house for its 36,000 restaurants currently looks like a mini-factory serving fried frozen patties and french fries. It needs to look more like a kitchen serving freshly prepared meals with locally sourced vegetables and grains — and it still needs to taste great and be affordable.

I’m not so sure. The whole idea of industrial food production is built around low cost convenience—and that requires a business model built around standardization. There is a reason why industrial food prep looks like a factory—it is a factory. Industrial production is  based on the precise calculation of units of labor, materials, and processes. It isn’t obvious such standardization is compatible with local sourcing catering to local tastes and the unpredictability of real kitchens.

There will always be a need for industrial food production in order to feed a large population with  a need for inexpensive food,  and confronted with the challenges of vast weather disparities, and transportation costs that sometimes favor bulk shipping. But it’s beginning to look like we’ve found alternative ways of thinking about food that can keep the worst excesses of industrial food production in check.

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