Whether it’s coffee or Slow Food Nation (or both), today there’s a strong public undercurrent of knee-jerk, reactionary dismissiveness of anybody who dares suggest that the generic brand-X-in-a-can isn’t good enough for them.
The mistaken public belief is that most of the things we eat and drink today are somehow normal, inevitable, and “natural” outcomes — and not necessarily the result of a series of cut corners to even outright scary practices made to industrialize food production and minimize costs (while also maximizing profits).
Now minimizing costs is a good thing. But when it’s the only thing, when lowest price is the rule and all consumables are considered interchangeable commodities, typically all the production tradeoffs made to minimize those costs are swept under the carpet and consumers are kept blissfully unaware.
Elitist snobs! Food freaks!
If you operated a business where you produced a good or product that consumers thought the only difference was price, how would you run that business? You’d make the cheapest stuff available — using as low-grade supplies as you could, and performing whatever compromising processes and practices you could to keep expenses down. You’d follow Henry Ford’s rules of industrialization, add scale, find innumerable ways to cut corners. This is how you’d make your profits. The only other challenge would be ensuring that whatever came out the other end of your machinery still qualified as the product in the eyes of indiscriminate consumers.
These practices in the mid- to late-20th century ensured that we were sold unripe oranges shipped on trucks and painted orange for consumer appeal. It ensured that supermarket tomatoes were hard and flavorless. It ensured that the chicken we eat came from factory farms where the animals were raised in impossibly tight quarters, succumbed to various diseases and illnesses because of the conditions, and then had to be pumped with drugs and antibiotics to combat these illnesses and keep them alive under those conditions. All the things that would horrify our grandmothers in contrast to what they used to call “food”. But even what do they know, given the transparency and accountability of the sausage factory these days?
The analogue for coffee today is embodied by the Big Four. Coffee beans were treated as the equivalent of nuts on screws — so producers were incented to find the cheapest, lowest grade stuff available. This is how we got in the Fair Trade mess in the first place. The major international coffee producers sought robusta supplies from Vietnam and other emerging markets — bean supplies that were cruder, and yet far cheaper, than their existing suppliers. They added chemical treatments to make it taste more like their “old” coffee, and violá! No transparency. No accountability. Just give me a big can of generic “coffee”.
Food snobs unite!
Today people are coming to a greater awareness that their tomatoes don’t taste the same under these conventional rules of industrialization as they do from the backyard. And so there’s a growing consumer interest and demand for accountability and transparency in what they are actually getting for their money. A tomato isn’t necessarily like every other tomato, and the same is true for coffee in how it is grown, handled, and prepared.
It’s always been true: you often get what you pay for. But how many of us truly know what we’re getting, or what we’re contributing to, when we demand whole chicken at Safeway for 69¢ per pound?
A lot of people still want lowest common denominator products. All fine and good — that’s a matter of choice, and economics. But should someone remember what a ripe tomato really used to taste like and asks for that experience again, does that make them an elitist food snob? If so, we will proudly wear the badge of elitist food snob with honor. Food snobs everywhere are saving our food supply from becoming one giant Play-doh Fun Factory fed by tubes of high fructose corn syrup.
Interestingly enough, yesterday The Consumerist highlighted a Pittsburgh-area video from WTAE-TV. It featured someone’s grandmother, and she demonstrated some of the clandestine production practices a Big Four coffee producer followed to squeeze every last drop of profit out of their “tastes like crap” coffee. As if we’re surprised…
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