Sunday, July 19, 2015

Selling Woo and Provenance At Whole Foods

My wife likes to shop at Whole Foods, but I am not a fan.  It's true that the vegetables and fruits are arranged in a lovely manner, but the prices are very high which is why the store is commonly called "Whole Paycheck".

Whole Foods is mostly selling nonsense and woo -- the idea that "organic" is better than regular, that "free range" means something, and that "Genetically Modified" is bad and non-GMO is good.

This is complete poppycock on every front, and the sales job only works because the customer base is largely ignorant about both food and farms. Posturing has replaced actual science and research.

Look at the small "red seedless watermelons" sign at top. Whole Foods does not tell us these cultivars are mutants first created by subjecting seeds to radiation and chemicals, same as so many other types of "seedless" produce are created. Does this fact make the watermelon "bad"? Why? And if not, why is GMO food different?

Whole Foods also fails to notify its customers base that much of the fruit they sell comes from cloned and grafted trees and vines. Clones! Grafts! Is there anything less natural than a fruit tree carrying five kinds of fruit on it?

And what are we to make of the incredible genetic manipulation that took an ugly weed and made from it cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and kohlrabi?  Is this too "science gone mad"?

In another aisle, we find eggs being sold for $7.49 a dozen. Why? These eggs taste exactly the same as those that sell for $2 a dozen or half again less than that.

The answer, or course, is the packaging. 

Here we are told these eggs come from "Girls on Grass" who are "Free to Forage."  

These are wonderful slogans designed to flip political and emotional switches, but do these eggs actually taste different than eggs produced in a regular commercial hen house? 

Double-blind research has been done, and the answer is NO

So what's going on here?

The answer is that the product being purchased is subordinate to the story. People are not buying eggs, they are buying provenance.

Of course this kind of thing happens all the time, and the world of dogs is not immune. As I wrote some years back:

If I show you a battered old straw hat, you might not think it much. But if I tell you that this same hat was once owned by Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, then it’s something entirely different, and quite remarkable. Now the hat has provenance! Instead of being tossed into the trash, this old, yellow hat will be put on a shelf and pointed out to any guest that comes over.

And so it is with dogs.

A “slightly used” cross-bred dog at the pound is a never-mind, but give that animal a decent story, and attach a few fake credentials to it, and suddenly you have a star and a conversation piece!

Ask any decent forger or old-time dog dealer, and they will tell you that the trick to selling a fake provenance is to build on a few small bits of obscure history, always adding a little specificity, but never making the story too over-the-top.

For example, suppose you have a slightly odd-looking terrier cross with prick ears? Perfect.

You can say the dog is a “Scarlett Point Terrier,” named after the Scarlett Point Radar Station on the Isle of Man where they were first bred during World War II.

It seems that when the Chain Home radar stations were first being built around 1939, it was not always easy for the operators to tell the difference between an airplane and a flock or birds. At the Scarlett Point Radar Station, however, there was a young radio operator who noticed that his terrier would sit up and cock his head at about the same time an airplane first appeared on scope. The dog never paid any mind if it was a flock of birds, however. Clearly the dog could hear the airplanes from a great distance! Well, after that all, small prick-eared terriers where acquired and used at all the radar stations ringing Britain. After the war, a few old radar operators bred the dogs and kept the breed alive into the 1970s. The dogs have almost disappeared now, of course, but there are still a very about and, by God, we happen to have one here! A miracle.

See? Provenance!

Of course to really sell a story like this, you need few documents to support the claim. The good news is that a printed certificate or two from the old “Scarlett Point Terrier Association” can be easily printed out on a computer, with an old manual typewriter used to fill out the form and give it all an air of 1960s authenticity.

In the world of food, the provenance is often invented.

From what I can tell, at least half the foods labeled "approved kosher" are not even covered under kosher law. Kosher bottled water? Gimme a break!

And then there's the store that tells their over-priced chicken as "hormone-free," conveniently leaving off the note that is is actually illegal to give hormones to chickens. ALL chickens are hormone free!

Then there's the packaging that says the food is "100% organic -- no harm to nature."

Nonsense. I have never met an organic farm that does not want every deer and groundhog shot off its property, nor have I met an organic farm that did not cut down trees to plow under the soil.

No farm is "natural," and we might as well start acknowledging it.

How about olive oil and wine?  The frauds here are legion; put a little green good coloring in the worst olive oil made, legally sold only for industrial lubrication or lamp oil, and most people will coo over it. As for wines, the greatest experts in the world cannot tell one from another, and often have a hard time even telling the difference between red and white!

And have you seen the packaged goods that are labeled "chemical free"? What does that even mean?

Everything is made of chemicals and that includes apples and oranges as well as cat litter and water.

And what about chickens that are raised "cage free" or "free-range"?  Did you know that a chicken can be called "cage  free" with less than 1 square foot of space, and that a "free range" bird may have less than 2 square feet and never step outside?

Of course, fraud is thick all over, and why not?

Since the core claims is meaningless, is there really any harm in taking battery-cage eggs and selling them as being produced by "Girls on Grass" who are "Free to Forage"?

Anyone think that might actually be done?

And, of course, the same thing is easily seen in the world of dogs.

A fake provenance, of course, can be cocked up for any dog. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, is there? No, of course not! After all, The Kennel Club’s been doing it since the beginning.

So let’s get on with it. Is the dog in question a Staffie cross? Ah well, it’s not a local Staffie cross is it? No, this is a Portuguese Vinho do Cão, raised for hundreds of years in Portugal and Spain to guard wine cellars on farms, ships and restaurants. The Irish Staffie is actually descended from these dogs, which first washed up in Eire after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

You have a long-coated shepherd of pedigree unknown? It’s actually a Chien de Couvertur, once used to bust cattle and pigs out of the thick hedgerows of Normandy. The dog was all but lost after Operation Overlord in 1945, but a pair of dogs was embraced as a division mascot by troops landing at Sword Beach. These dogs were later bred by Lord Chancelberry (then Lieutenant Chancelberry) at Falmouth Estate, and the dog you see before you now is descended from those two original dogs. It’s only available now only because a former gardener at the Falmouth Estate has fallen terribly ill.

And so it goes.

Massive fortunes are being made by people selling "grain free" dog food that is the same stuff sold all over, and by others claiming their food is made in a "kitchen" when it is actually made in a factory several time zones away.

There is big business to be made in selling woo and contrived provenance to the gullibles, and in making people feel better about themselves by charging them twice as much for the privilege.

No skin off my nose when it is done, but pardon me if I hold on to my wallet and stay out of the aisles at Whole Foods.


Daniel Winings said...

Stay out of whole foods and be skeptical of those who cash in on a claim to provenance? Yes!

But what do you think of the underlying concerns for animal welfare? Should our food systems take it into account? As an omnivore, would you think me a fool for raising/hunting my own meat and politely refusing the occasional offer of a frozen pizza because of concerns for animal welfare?

I agree with your criticism of the marketing. I agree much of it is designed to separate fools from their money based upon sentiment. I remain concerned, however, about the ethical implications of our food system, have acted accordingly, and would be interested to read your thoughts.

Hondochica z said...

OK - I want to start by saying I absolutely love your blog. And I truly respect your opinion on most postings. But you missed the boat here - big time! So - while this may sound rude - it is not intended that way. I am just amazed at how you have bought into the marketing hype of Monsanto!

Wow! where to begin? I clearly get the 'marketing' hype when it comes to 'natural' foods. And while I wish that 'cage free' truly meant that hens can wander at will in open pastures, I know better. However, there is a 'real' meaning when it comes to 'organic' and 'non-GMO'. "organic" means that I am not contributing (at least with that particular food I am buying) to adding toxic, man-made chemicals to the soil and water of our environment; it means that I have less exposure to man-made toxic chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides; it means that I am not contributing to the degraded health of farm workers through their exposure to these chemicals that are all cancer-causing. I could go on at length, but I buy organic to reduce the toxic load in my system and to reduce the toxic load on our planet.

As for GMO - a grafted tree is NOT a GMO food! A GMO food is one in which the GENES from another plant or animal are added to the target plant or animal. Sorry, but putting genes from a bacteria (e.g. Bacillus thuringiensi) into corn to protect against corn rootworm is a bit different than tree grafting, or even seed radiation! And the vast majority (if not all) "safety" tests for GMO foods are done by the big chemical manufacturers like Monsanto! Talk about HYPE! And those "safety" tests are done on rats for a mere 90 days. However, you and your future generations could/would be eating these GMO foods for 90 years - your enitre life! Can you say "cumulative effect"? Sorry - but I don't want to be a long-term experiment!

Clearly this topic is far more complicated than my simple retort.

You say: "there is big business to be made in selling woo and contrived provenance to the gullibles . . " You have been duped! You ARE the gullible soul buying those GMO foods that Monsanto insists are "safe". I think Monsanto is making a H&*% of alot more $$ selling you that "safe" GMO food than Whole Foods is making marketing to 'woo and provenance'.

I think you need to stop being duped by Big Agra!


PBurns said...

Daniel: Yes, there are animal welfare concerns. They are a little weak, however, when you realize a broiler is dead at 7 weeks and won't go outside even when the door is open. But yes, animals deserve to be treated with respect.

As for GMO, it's not that complex as William Saleten recently noted: anti-GMO folks are simply herding themselves along, lying at almost every turn, and simply ignoring sound science. These are anti-vaxxers, creationists, and flat earthers under a new name. These kind of folks will always be with us, because people have a need for conspiracies, from JFK and the grassy knoll to holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, and chem-trail woo-spinners. Here's Saletan's latest in SLATE.

jeffrey thurston said...

I wish I shared your conviction about conspiracies- but as you imply in your instructions for commentary that's a subject for my own blog...

Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,
I have reared, killed, plucked and eaten my own chickens. I have visited local agribusiness poultry houses and "free range" operations with their tractor dragged mesh enclosures.

My traditional chicken flock were best off. The agribusiness birds are so horribly treated I won't order chicken in a restaurant. "Free Range" isn't Free Range but either as story or reality it's a better life for the birds we eat.

At one time or another I've reared chickens, turkeys, beef, hogs and lambs. Some I've killed myself, others I've sold for slaughter.

Involved in the rich moral ambiguities of caring for, treasuring and finally killing animals, I often found myself citing the Bob Dylan line about "not making those who must be killed to crawl."

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

I am less freaked out by how chickens are commercially raised in part because I have raised chickens.

Chickens are wonderfully interesting as groups, individuals, and for genetics, but they are also meals on heels and always have been. I have made my peace with that.

Chickens are subject to every kind of horror all the time, and there is no stopping it, from rats eating chicks to chicks eating chicks, to hawk and fox and snake predation, to cat and dog predation, and from feather plucking to egg-eating. These are tropical birds we have engineered for daily egg and meat production.

Does that mean we need to be gratuitously cruel? Of course not, even if chickens are gratuitously cruel to each other.

That said, I am not convinced that giving chickens all the feed and water they want, keeping them warm and safe from predators, and killing them quickly is cruel.

Are some of our breeding practices cruel? Yes, without a doubt. Birds that are so large they cannot stand, and flocks that have 15% heart attack rates due to massive breast production are wrong. If I was to focus on chicken welfare, that's where I would start.

PipedreamFarm said...

One big problem I have with organic meat production is producers are incentivized to not treat sick animals with modern medicines.

"Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."

How is this humane? Once treated with modern medicines for being sick the animal is no longer organic (can't be sold at "organic prices"). It's more economical for producers to see if the animal can get healthy without treatment.

Chemicals made in a lab (exact same ones made by nature) are bad but chemicals made by nature are okay (asbestos, arsenic, aflatoxin, thujone, cyanide, 5-methoxypsoralen, phytohaemagglutinin, coumarin, 1-allyl-3,4-methylenedioxybenzene, etc). Cooking makes more chemicals from even "organic" foods (i.e. acrylamide, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol, furan, nitrosodimethylamine, etc) but since they were made in the kitchen (or on the grill) and not a lab it's okay.

PipedreamFarm said...

For you chemophobes

Nature's chemicals and synthetic chemicals: Comparative toxicology

Daniel Winings said...

My agreement with you continues on GMOs. They concern me very little and the relief they have brought to millions is amazing.

I have 99 problems with modern agriculture and the system of incentives we have created, but genetic modification is not one of them.


"" "Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."

How is this humane? Once treated with modern medicines for being sick the animal is no longer organic (can't be sold at "organic prices"). It's more economical for producers to see if the animal can get healthy without treatment.""

You should look into the organic principles and standards, of your area, to see if this statement is true.

In Ireland, it is not true. Animals can be treated for sickness and still be classified as organic, with a declaration form submitted to the organic supervisory body.

A difference between a organic herd and a regular herd is, all animals get treated to prevent any disease or illness whether or not they are sick, while organic animals get treated if a illness or disease occurs, thus limiting chemical exposure.

Obviously some chemicals are out-lawed while some are tolerated under certain conditions.


"we find eggs being sold for $7.49 a dozen. Why? These eggs taste exactly the same as those that sell for $2 a dozen or half again less than that."

Are you saying all eggs are the same. Having my own hens roaming on a acre in west of Ireland, I can tell you, supermarket/factory produced crap cannot compare.

It's like the difference between farmed Salmon and wild from the river. They are incomparable.

Considering the quality of your blog, I'm surprised by your lack of taste on this subjects.

PBurns said...

The opposite of research is anecdote. If you actually read the links you will discover that NO ONE can tell the difference between free range, organic, etc.

Not too surprising -- if there is any actual difference at all, humans will not likely be able to tasted it as we have weak taste buds, left over from when we lived off of muddy water, boiled leaves, and rotten meat.

Most "taste" claims are actually bullshit, from wine to olive oil -- a fact that is widely documented.

As with wine and olive oil, all of this has far less do with the what people can actually taste, and much more with what they want to think about themselves.

PBurns said...

Wine "experts" cannot even tell the difference between red and white if its hidden!

And that's true for eggs too >>

And A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can't distinguish between paté and dog food. >>

PipedreamFarm said...

This quote: "Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones" was taken from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) website on the definition of "Organic"

PipedreamFarm said...

Also from the USDA

Prevention. Since organic farmers can’t routinely use drugs to prevent diseases and parasites, they mostly use animal selection and management practices. Only a few drugs, such as vaccines, are allowed.

Treatment. Pain medication and dewormers (for dairy and breeder stock, prohibited for slaughter stock) are examples of allowed animal drugs. These therapies are only allowed if preventive strategies fail and the animal becomes ill.
Approved synthetics:

If approved interventions fail, the animal must still be given all appropriate treatment(s). However, once an animal is treated with a prohibited substance (e.g., antibiotics), the animal and/or its products must not be sold as organic post-treatment.


Next you'll be saying robusta tastes the same as arabica

I suppose if a survey says so then it must be true.

Tell me you can taste the difference between port and wine. I hate wine.

Czech beer compared to bud. lol

Mary Pang said...

Whole foods is the only place I can get decent pesto in a jar. It's not as good as fresh pesto but many times better than other jarred pesto which is too vinegary. I don't even look at their meat and veg, I assume it's too expensive. I don't like their holier than thou marketing.
I prefer chickens to have had enough room to stretch their wings and legs, somewhere to perch and clean littler. It's difficult to know if that's what you're getting.
Not bothered about GM, genes aren't sacrosanct.

PBurns said...

See this >>

An interesting, if old, coffee commercial from the days back when we drank stuff from percolators. Folger's is made with robusta. With coffee, how you make it matters a LOT. I would like to try making cold brew with robusta, but it's almost impossible to get robusta beans.

PipedreamFarm said...

Blind taste tests can be set-up to sway participants either way despite any taste differences.

Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea

jeff hays said...

I don't drink wine and can assure you I could ace that test every time, can always tell good pate from dog food,every time, and I grind my French Roast just prior to brewing because of the vastly improved taste. I am some kind of freak?
I don't shop at whole foods cause I don't like to get ripped off.