It seems that each day brings more troubling news about our food supply. Mind you, we in this country, at least in its more affluent areas, are surrounded by excellent food and food sources. It’s just that you increasingly have to educate yourself, and maybe go out of your way and pay more, to access them. Community gardening is growing in popularity, along with farmers markets, and that definitely helps.
But two recent news items about the supply side have caught my attention. First, in the Wall Street Journal, a short “The Margin” piece about the “10 companies that put nearly all the food on supermarket shelves.” This links to a report by Oxfam, with in-depth coverage. According to Oxfam, the Big 10 are Coca Cola Co., Nestle , PepsiCo Inc., General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., Associated British Foods, Mondelez International, Mars, Danone, and Unilever.
There’s an amazing graphic on the Wall Street Journal site that maps out the tentacles these ten behemoths spread out to encompass all the major brands. The graphic was created by Behind the Brands, a consumer activist organization that aims to shine a light on how big brands rate on key issues such as their treatment of the land and water, women, farmers, workers, climate, and transparency. Here’s a scorecard on how each company rates; you can use it to find out who’s really behind some of your (possibly) favorite brands.
Short story, however is that a substantial amount of the packaged and processed foods in supermarket aisles is manufactured by just ten companies. This vast global network is creating a frightening situation with way too much power in the hands of way too few, and those of course being completely profit-driven. The only – I repeat ONLY – way to rein these companies in where needed is for consumers to speak up and put their money (and votes) where their mouths are. Vote with your wallet folks, and use the Behind the Brands website to express your opinion on their built-in feedback forms. Consumer pressure does make a difference once it impacts the bottom line.
The other big issue, and it’s one I’ve become increasingly pre-occupied with lately, is seafood. What fish should I buy? Sure, you can – and should – consult your favorite sustainable fish chart, but that is just part of the story. Terry Gross (NPR’s Fresh Air show host) recently interviewed author Paul Greenberg (American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood), and the segment’s title was “The Great Fish Swap’: How America Is Downgrading Its Seafood Supply.” I’ve heard some of this before, and it bothers me that so much of our best fish caught off our shores goes overseas, never to return, or if it does, it’s as filleted, frozen product. Yes, it’s actually cheaper to ship our fresh caught fish overseas to be filleted and frozen, then shipped back! Crazy, huh?
Greenberg enlightens us as to the reasons why this makes economic sense for the seafood processors. And, yes, part of the reason for this reverse “migration” is that Americans are pretty finicky about fish, which they seem to think should be very bland, and never taste “fishy.” Well, excuse me, it’s fish! What should it taste like? An Oreo? (Or maybe a boring boneless, skinless chicken breast?) And then there’s the American aversion to a whole fish, head, bones and all, which is by far the best way to enjoy smaller fresh fish. Don’t get me started…
Also, a lot of the farmed fish coming from Asia/Southeast Asia is not of the best quality. (Is that why I can’t stomach tilapia, which is so often mushy and muddy flavored?) When I go to the fish counter now, I usually end up paying a premium for never frozen wild caught fish (and usually ocean-going fish). I do occasionally buy flash frozen salmon filets, and maybe sometimes halibut or cod, but for me, once frozen, it’s never quite the same. When I have a truly good piece of fish in a good restaurant, so moist, so flaky, so tender, I am pretty sure it’s never been frozen.
(I thank Slow Food USA for pointing me toward these two stories in a recent email newsletter, they really do look out for us, and that’s why I re-up every year, with the Central NJ chapter.)