Why Our Food Industry Isn't So Bad After All

Longtime Casual Kitchen readers know that I love beating up on rogue subsectors of the food industry. Nothing arouses my indignation more than overpriced spices or branded boxed cereal, or any other area in the food industry where companies limit competition and extract profit out of proportion to the value they provide consumers.

But on the whole, I have to admit that our food industry generally gets it right. The industry adapts to changes in supply and demand very quickly. It supplies a massive amount of fresh and prepared foods to stores all over the continent in a dizzying display of logistics. And, as long as you arm yourself with just the tiniest bit of knowledge about things like cost-stacking and which foods are cheapest in what seasons, you can buy most of the food industry's products at surprisingly low prices.

Yes, there are some Malthusians out there prophesying the end of the food industry as we know it. But, seriously, do you remember the last time there was any kind of a meaningful food shortage in our country?

I do. It was the "rice shortage" of April 2008. Admittedly, some countries--those not fortunate enough to have a food industry as efficient and as responsive to market conditions as our own--clearly suffered.

But in the United States, our rice shortage got fixed in about three weeks. Or in about 1/100th of the time it takes to finish off one of those only-four-per-customer 20 pound bags of rice. That just doesn't happen unless you have an innovative, adaptive and highly effective food industry that gets the right products to consumers quickly and efficiently.

It's funny, I remember a lot of panicked media coverage of the horrors of the rice shortage, but I didn't see a single positive article discussing the fact that our food industry adjusted to it so quickly.

I'm still looking.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Related Posts:
The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation
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What's the Most Heavily Used Tool in Our Kitchen? Our Rice Cooker.
The Limping Dinner: Spicy Brown Rice
How to Make Fried Rice

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Jennifer Galatioto said...

Currently reading in Defense of Food and just watched The Future of Food and Monsanto's View of the World and its going to take a lot to convince me that the Food Industry isn't bad. My current view: they are an evil machine for profit and we are all severely unhealthy because of it. Join me? Yeah right. I WANT HOPE!!! Thats why I so eagerly read your article! Thanks for the insight.

Joanne said...

I remember the rice shortage and also how quickly I forgot about it - probably because it was taken care of before it really affected my life in any way. After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma I'm certainly more cynical about the food industry than I once was, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way, but it's nice to think about the food industry's redeeming qualities for a change. Thanks for this!

Amanda @ Mrs.W's Kitchen said...

I'm pretty positive about the food industry overall. Hah, the "rice shortage." It didn't affect people in the US at all. I didn't panic then, either.

Personally I feel great about the fact that I can get just about anything I want as long as I have cash in my pocket. As someone with dietary restrictions knows, that's huge. There are thousands of gluten-free bloggers out there that are making fantastic baked goods with alternative flours easily found in their parts of the world. How else could that happen without a well-oiled machine of a food industry?

Jennifer Galatioto said...

I totally agree that its a well oil machine, but I don't agree that the well-oiled machine puts out a good product for everyone on a large scale. Amanda, you are successful and most likely well informed about food enough to be able to make healthy choices and know where to buy those healthier options, whereas the mass of the food industry puts out highly processed unhealthy food that people with less insight about food and health and lesser means to buy the healthier options have no choice but to eat food that makes them and a lot of people in this country very sick and obese. I do feel like with all of the well informed information being put out by amazing blogs like this one, that maybe there will be a greater demand for higher quality healthier food and that will become the standard rather than what is lining the grocery store shelves now.

Daniel said...

Some interesting thoughts here.

Morta, thanks so much for your thoughts and your positive vibes!

I think what you're addressing here is the issue of choice. I'd love to hear what other readers think about this, but don't the people ultimately get to buy what they want? If they want to buy Doritos, some company will (and you could even argue SHOULD) provide Doritos.

But certainly healthy foods, like rice, oats, eggs, collard greens, kale, carrots, etc, are still available for much less money than Doritos (especially when you think of the cost per unit of weight!).


Jennifer Galatioto said...

Hi Daniel-
Of course there is an demand issue, but if the kale growers had billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns then as many people would be eating kale as doritos. So I don't think the consumer always directly creates the demand but is often led to wanting a specific product because of advertising. Do you agree?

Daniel said...

Morta, I hear you. It can be shocking how otherwise intelligent adults can be easily manipulated by advertising.

Readers, what's your take on this?


Amanda @ Mrs.W's Kitchen said...

I think we're confusing the issue of availability and education.

I must go on record to say that my grocery (food, paper products and pet supplies) budget has recently shifted from $50/week to $30/week due to circumstances that I won't go into here. Do I know what choices are better for me? Yes, but only because I became a diabetic and had to educate MYSELF in better nutrition.

I'm not about to go into great detail, but please don't suggest my diabetes is due to early food choices. It actually is not. Let's leave it there.

Unfortunately, the nutritional education I got while in school (granted, some decades ago) was not great, and of course back then the availability of, say, fresh strawberries year-round simply did not exist.

As a diabetic, I very much appreciate the availability of frozen or fresh berries year-round. They are my go-to fruit of choice, being lowest on the glycemic index. If our food distribution system didn't allow for that, I'd be in a fix. Apples, while plentiful in my area in the fall and over-winter, jack my sugar up and are not a good choice for me. Other fruit are in the same category. I stick with berries & melons for the most part.

As for advertising of healthier foods, I don't see it happening on television like you'd see mac & cheese--but it's all over food blogs! Plus shows like Emeril Green, segments on various talk shows, food network programs, Martha, etc., all talk about 'shopping the grocery store perimeter' and focusing on healthy, non-packaged foods.

What I think should happen is a free education program for those qualifying for food stamps and WIC. Some cooperative extension offices offer that already--but transportation to our county coop ext ofc is not available to those who qualify, so... you see the problem.

I can't fault the food industry here. Because of it I'm able to purchase the things I need within my meager budget. Yes, I know how to make good choices, but people have to have the freedom to decide for themselves, good or bad.

Climbing off my soapbox now. Sorry for the lengthy post, Dan.

Daniel said...

Not at all Amanda, thanks for the insights!

I particularly like your thoughts on what foods are advertised on TV vs what's on food shows and cooking blogs. Good information is out there.