Issue 195: October 2001


Deskilling the Butcher
(and everyone else)

by Brewster Kneen

When I wrote From Land To Mouth (first published in 1989), I described what I called the logic of the food system with three words: distancing, uniformity and continuous flow. Distancing has since then become widely recognized and used as a tool to analyze and understand the industrial food system, as has proximity, the word I found best described the antithesis of distancing. The uniformity aspect is fairly obvious, certainly in the monoculture fields of wheat, canola or corn, and now in the genetic uniformity of patented crops and the monoculture of the supermarkets, despite the superficial diversity contained within them. Continuous flow was the least obvious characteristic. It was inspired by my visit to a very large dairy processors trade show in Chicago where I saw, for the first time, the latest equipment in dairy processing, in particular a very large machine that had a column of milk descending between two sheets of plastic which were formed non-stop into the familiar pouch around the stream of milk. Three of these one-litre bags were then packaged in a single larger bag for retail sale. It seemed to me then that this machine represented the essence of the industrial system - an endless flow of Product from Source (anywhere in the world) to Consumer to Sewage. The consumer's job is to keep the system functioning by being a good consumer, just another piece of tubing in the system. If we don't do our job, the system backs up and the overflow has to be siphoned off to the food banks.

Well, a dozen or so years later I decided that it was time to expose myself once again to the latest in food technology - not biotechnology, but food machinery of a more material kind such as ice cream machines and sausage machines and machines that disassemble a whole carcass of beef and turn it into packaged and even cooked bits and pieces for the deli case. The show I decided to attend in mid-October was the Worldwide Food Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago, sponsored by the American Meat Institute and the International Dairy Processors. I wandered for most of two days through what must have been thousands of exhibits, trying to understand what was being presented.

What I saw was a representation, in gleaming stainless steel, of the corporate consolidation that we all know has been taking place, and of the practice of 'continuous flow', though now it's from the centralized TNC-owned total-processing facility all the way out to the retail counter. Specifically, what I observed, and could admire in its ingenuity and design, was processing equipment that could transform the globally-packaged in a single-serving container, whether it was a meat or dairy product. In other words, all the processing and packaging is to be done at a single location and distributed without further transformation to the final consumer at the retail counter. Forget the one-litre bags in a three bag package. Now the proliferating flavours and combinations come in very attractive 150 ml or so Tetra-Pak 'prism' containers or 'wedges' or little plastic pouches (designed for third-world street vendors). Just look at what's available these days at the gas station, convenience store or supermarket. Of course you can buy the single-serving containers packaged in units of 6 or ten or twelve, but the point is that the basic package originates in head office, so to speak, and experiences the continuous flow of the vertically integrated corporation (or an alliance of corporations) from head office to retail counter to individual consumer.

For example: Meat packers used to buy live cattle and ship out 'swinging' beef, that is, beef carcasses by the side - swinging because the halves hung from a hook and would swing (and age) in the railway cars travelling from Chicago or Iowa to the eastern cities. There they would be sold to local butcher shops and, later, supermarkets, where the butchers in the back room would cut and wrap the meat according to customer desires. Then around fifteen years ago the packers such as Cargill and IBP started cutting the beef into smaller chunks and boxing them for shipment by truck - hence, boxed beef. But the local butcher still had to cut the big pieces into smaller cuts for the retail counter, and maybe even make some sausages if he still had the old-world skill. The latest chapter, of course, has the big packer taking over the whole process, shipping fully packaged and weighed retail cuts directly to the supermarkets. You won't find a 'back room' at the supermarket anymore, but you will find minimum-wage employees pricing the packages and keeping the display case stocked. Instead of the back room you will now find a deli counter up front, where food products are to be found in even smaller containers.

What's now in the works is a further centralization of preparation and a further de-skilling of everyone in the system down to the consumer at home or in the fast-food outlet ('outlet' is so appropriate!). The food product is cooked at factory-central so that the retail consumer just has to heat his individual 'serving' in the microwave.

The global food packaging industry has gone from being almost nothing 50 years ago to a $100 billion-a-year monster today. British farmers grow about $100 billion worth of food a year at farm-gate prices. The packaging industry is thought to turn over about $11 billion per year. Between 10% and 50% of the price of food can now be attributed to its packaging. - Guardian, 27/9/01

Oh yes, there is one other characteristic that I should note: ESL. (Extended shelf life, that is, not English as a Second Language, although given the global reach of the system that kind of ESL may be included as well.) Obviously, if food is going to be prepared and packaged hundreds or thousands of kilometres from its final resting place, it has to have ESL. This is achieved, in part, by the fancy and ingenious a-septic processing and packaging developed by Tetra-Pak, or by the process known as ultra-pasteurization (UHT), or irradiation (cobalt 60 has not gone over well, so now x-rays and 'electron beam' processing are being pushed).
At the end of the day, what this all adds up to is great individual "convenience," more of the food dollar going to packaging and distribution, and above all, more centralized control of the food system, and with that control, and profit.

What does all this have to do with nutrition, equity and justice? Not much. And even less with environmental well-being.