Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Bold Lies Made About "Local" Foods

Last year,
I wrote on this blog:

I am always a bit amused when people tell me they are a "locovore."

They use this term without irony. I am supposed to applaud, but it is a bit hard when their clothes were made in Bangladesh from cotton grown in Mali and shipped to them through the Straights of Malaysia on Saudi crude.

Their car or truck was almost certainly made 3,000 miles away, and runs on Canadian oil. They text on a phone designed in San Francisco and made in China, which is powered by coal or fracked natural gas sent 1,000 miles by pipe before it is converted to electricity sent 300 miles more by wire.


What does that mean? Is there such as thing as "locavore" olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, rice, nuts, and garbanzo beans?

Not most places! In fact, nowhere.

When someone tells you they are a "locavore" all they are really telling you is that they occasionally buy produce at a farmer's market -- produce that was started in plastic pots made in Mexico, and fertilized with phosphate from Florida, and nitrogen from Alabama. That produce was too often picked by labor that came from 5,000 miles away, before it was packed in plastic and cardboard that came 800 miles, and was trucked 200 miles more to market.

I recently had coffee with a woman from the "corporate compliance" industry. I told her I thought almost everything sold was subject to fraud and, as an example, I pointed out that the coffee we had just ordered was supposed to be from Sumata, but more likely it was from Columbia.  How was I -- or anyone else -- to know?  How much money could be made from such a fraud?  A lot!"

And if that's true for coffee, it's also true for wine, olive oil, cheese, and a thousand other things. 

More often than we would like to admit, we are buying malarkey, not the simple goods placed in front of us.

And isnt this true about dogs as well? As I noted a few years back:

I have checked around, and none of The Kennel Club Rhodesian Ridgebacks are actually hunting lions. None of the Portuguese Water Dogs are actually herding fish into nets as some claim they once did. The Irish Wolfhounds are not racing down Irish wolves – or even Minnesota wolves, for that matter.

The Kennel Club Fox Terriers are not found in the hunt field chasing fox down holes. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers do not actually dance at pond-side in order to hypnotize ducks into coming closer to the guns. The English Bulldog can barely walk or breathe, much less grab a bull by the nose.

The Australian Shepherd does not come from Australia, the Chinese Crested does not come from China, and the Pharaoh Hound does not come from Egypt, nor is it of ancient origin.

What’s going on here?

It’s simple enough. Dog dealers understand that a lot of people live rich fantasy lives. And so, long before the advent of online video games, dog dealers sold ready-made fantasy.

Put your money down, and as early as 1850, almost anyone could buy an exotic-looking dog with storied past and rare abilities. And what was the harm? After all, no one who actually had a hill covered with sheep was going to Crufts to buy a Puli, Komondor or “Barbie” Collie to tend to their flock.

What folks are so often buying are not the goods themselves, but the story attached to those goods - provenance.

Provenance? What’s that?

Provenance is simply a story. 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.

Regular readers of this blog know I enjoy "provenance" stories in the world of dogs, and I have noted that much the same goes on the world of dog food. "Honest Kitchen"? Not by a long shot!

And how about the goods sold to us at Whole Foods? Yep, a lot of nonsense there too!

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.

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.

So what's the latest example?

It turns out all those local-produce organic restaurants are selling nonsense. I went over the numbers some years back.  Very few acres of land are planted in commercial organic fruits and vegetables, and it would be virtually impossible for a restaurant not connected to its own 50-acre farm, do it. 

In short, if a restaurant is telling you they are "from farm to table" they are almost certainly lying.

The Tampa Bay Tribune looked at a popular local restaurant called "The Mill" run by chef-owner Ted Dorsey, and what they found was illuminating:

Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Sons, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.

I called him on all this. He said he needed to speak with his chef, Zach West, and get back to us. The results didn’t get any closer: farmed trout from Idaho, beef from Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast.

“Local Florida proteins are not quality,” Dorsey explained. But what about the mileage claims?

“Well, we serve local within reason.”

In her excellent article, Laura Reiley explains why
almost all of the restaurant claims about locally-sourced produce are nonsense:

I have been a restaurant critic since 1991 and have always known there are fraudulent menu claims. This “housemade dessert” is Sysco’s Fudgy Wudgy chocolate layer cake I’ve eaten a dozen times. That “fresh snapper” has done serious freezer time. I know about the St. Petersburg restaurant that refilled Evian bottles with tap, the fancy Tampa restaurant where the “house wine” is a dump of open bottles on their last legs.

It was around 2012 that Tampa Bay menus sprouted the sentence “we source locally” near the admonition about consuming raw or undercooked meats. Fiction started to seem like the daily special.

Most restaurants buy food from one of a small handful of distributors who source products in bulk at the best price from around the world.

The national biggies are Sysco and US Foods. Smaller Florida-based companies include Cheney Brothers and Weyand. Then there are specialty distributors such as Master Purveyors in Tampa or Culinary Classics in Orlando. Most restaurants do not have the time or wherewithal to deal directly with farmers and producers; most farmers and producers don’t have the infrastructure to do their own sales, marketing and delivery.

So the storytelling begins.

Read the whole piece
, but suffice it to say that the house-made curds arrive in a box from a factory, the "Alaskan Pollock" is Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, the "locally-caught wild shrimp" are farm-raised in India, and the "F**k Monsanto Salad" is actually GMO, and not organic.

The "veal schnitzel" contains no veal, the "wild boar ragout" contains no wild boar, the "Florida blue crab" is from the Indian ocean, the "lobster roll" contains no lobster, and the "grass-fed and hormone- and antibiotic-free beef" is corn-fed feed-lot steer pumped full of hormones and antibiotics.

Almost nothing comes from where it says on the sign.

And so it goes.... As always, in all things, caveat emptor.


Joe Mama said...

So correct me if I am wrong:
You are telling me that I am responsible for exercising discernment even when somebody offers to make decisions for me? You are telling me that there is no Defense Against the Dark Arts spell that banishes humbuggery and make everything rainbows and unicorns (even though dark chocolate comes close). You dare to suggest that people, good people, people who say all of the magic words in the correct order, might be motivated by the crass pursuit of mammon?

Sir: You have a dark and cynical view of humanity. You have been ruined by Math and Logic. It is clear that you do not appreciate the foundation of civilization is the principle of allowing people to nourish their own personal fantasies in the expectation that they will not molest anyone else's fantasies.

At least the people who spend three times as much for wilted greens that are advertised as "local" least they CARE.

jeffrey thurston said...

What's really cool about all this toney upper-crusty bullshit is that it really harms no one- the unknown (by the consumer) hormone in that beef won't cause any harm to anyone just as the unknown pesticide won't (at least to humans). Here in Berkeley there is a whole class of people who live their lives in fear of all things corporate or new- they drive around in their smog-spewing Volvos, live in their $1,000,000 Craftsman houses, declare Columbus Day Native American Mourning Day and yet live that American dream to the full. The first Whole Foods is here...

Robert Pryor said...

I agree with most all of what you said.

Back to the "Pedigree Dog" issue. My Standard Dachshunds are from European bloodlines, the are longer legged than the AKC show dogs and are not happy unless out on the hunt. No dog parks for them, they just whine to get out and roam and they don't care much for the crazy dogs and their people.

I also have two "Carolina Dogs" - grandfather was wild caught in the South. They aren't even recognized by the AKC and look much like the Desi street dogs of India and elsewhere and very much resemble Dingos, but are NOT. The are a joy to own - primitive and weary of strangers but very loyal. They also live to be in the woods but love,love water. Probably been breeding in the swamps for centuries.

All are Raw feed and minimally vaccinated (only Rabies by law).