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Diner: Smoking Out Stealth Food

We're finally digesting the deadly realities of Big Food's hidden power brokers

By Wayne roberts · April 2nd, 2008 · Diner
Bill Bullock/TinctCreative

It might be too early to name the moment but not to notice that the moment is coming. The way we think about what we digest is on the verge of a major overhaul. The signs are everywhere: Jamie Oliver's fame in the UK; Michael Pollan's runaway best-sellers in the U.S. (In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is the latest); pace-setting mag The Ecologist's special March food crisis issue; Global-TV's recent airing of Hijacked Future, a made-for-TV special on the corporate takeover of food; and so much more.

Who'd have thunk back in 2001 that this could ever happen? Politicians are less clued in to the mega-trend, partly for the same reason that people over 35 don't think of Facebook first when they want to network, but also because they and I'm talking about green pols, pink as well as right-wing are so enmeshed in the old way of relating to food as an "issue."

A symptom of this is the way food matters belong to one government department. Hardening of the categories is the big heart disease issue that keeps governments from engaging new matters that explode in all directions which is what the coming moment in food will do.

Here's one long-established reality that's going to get clearer: Most folks believe they know the names of big food corporations think everyone's favorite whipping boys McDonald's and Monsanto when all they know is the names of corporations that want them to know their names.

People who don't recognize the likes of ADM, ConAgra, Bunge, Cargill, Syngenta, Sysco, Sodexho, Aramark or Chartwells don't know what to look for which is how the powers that run silent and deep like it.

Few even know when they're buying a Kraft, Nestl/ or Unilever product, thanks to what's sometimes called "stealth labeling." In food, unlike communications and other high-flying sectors, it's about power, high volume and low margins, not power and glory.

Forget the glamorous food photography. Food is a humble, earthy, bloody and dirty industry, so the less anyone knows or divulges about the innards of food and policy the better. "Laws are like sausages," the unifier of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, said. "It is better not to see them being made."

Of the 1.1 billion people who work to put food on human tables, most make less than $2 a day, which explains why 170 million of them are children. Half of all workplace fatalities in a year are in agriculture, according to food guru of gurus Tim Lang in his Ecologist centerfold.

Of the 177,000 who die each year, about 70,000 die from agricultural poisons not that this makes many top-10 lists of reasons to go organic. The less we know, the better, many who run corporations obviously feel.

The feeling is shared by numerous large public purchasers of food and deliverers of meals. Food is not their chief mandate, administrators will say. And so it came to pass that Sodexho, Aramark and Chartwells do the food service for most of the continent's captive populations in hospitals, jails, universities, childcare centers, seniors' residences, private schools and corporate cafeterias, while Sysco does restaurants.

These corporations play a central role in this invisible food empire that accounts for about a quarter of all meals consumed in North America, establishing the benchmarks for the North American food system. Sysco's name comes from "system." Logistics is what makes these giants tick.

These firms are playing catch-up, working overtime to find another way to add value to their service now that food has other values besides filling stomachs. The companies that don't respond to the new food literacy will be yesterday's meat.

As eaters become more engaged, they will begin to think not just of food but also of seeds and soil. The more concerned they are, the more they will notice that soil is losing its complex nutrient base, and that fewer than 10 seed monopolies control the world's seed supply. They commonly develop seeds for traits that have little to do with nutrition or local adaptation and more to do with adaptability to the seed company's main business of drugs or chemicals.

It's 7 o'clock in the morning, the promo for Hijacked Future says. Do you know where your toast is from? ©



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