Feed on

I was walking around a local market not too long ago and overheard someone speaking about he virtues of “fresh food” and in particular the food that goes “from farm to table” – you know, the stuff grown locally and then eaten in season. I hate that I have to preface everything I say with a defense, but I do. My wife and I eat a ton of local foods in season and we love them, we really do. But can we please stop for a minute and stop nodding our heads up and down when we hear comments like that?

Why would I urge this?

I like watching Modern Marvels on History Channel and How’d They Make That on the Science Channel – and among my favorite shows are those that show how modern food is produced. I also had the pleasure of touring the Ben & Jerry’s factory over the summer and recently listened to this fantastic interview by Russ Roberts of an executive from the Frito Lay corporation. Consider the potato chip.

Do you know how many hands actually get put on a bag of potato chips from the time it is a tuber in the ground until the time it ends up on the shelf in your favorite store? At most two. And Frito Lay is trying to get it down to 1. Let’s think about what this kind of an accomplishment means. It means that potatoes are planted, weeded, fertilized, de-pested, de-fungused, harvested, packed, transported to the potato chip plant, taken from the train into a washer, then they are peeled, then they are cut, then they are cooked, coated with a little salt and oil (or other seasonings) then they are tested (each and every one of them) for shape, size and how well cooked it is, bad ones are discarded, and good ones allowed to continue, then they are packaged, placed in boxes, shipped in trucks, transported from truck to store shelf (there are warehouses in various places in between here), and then placed neatly and carefully on the shelf.

And through all of that, at most two pairs of hands touch the potato, and really none touch the actual food product at all (the worker who stocks the shelf is touching the finished product, a sealed and safe bag). Potato chips can be baked and new ways to cutting up salt can deliver the same salty flavor with considerably less sodium per chip. Some chips are baked and have no salt. The factories and machines are all sanitized and cleaned regularly, no dirty contaminated hands touch the food during any part of the process, the sealed bags are air tight and preserve freshness of this potato for months, no other customers put their hands on your food, and the food is available 12 months of the year. That a giant bag of the best chips cost $3.99 is a marvel. That no one I can remember has ever become sick or ill from consuming a potato chip is truly a marvel – compare that to what potatoes used to do to people even a few hundred years ago – they are not exactly naturally a food product fit for human consumption. Or check this out.

There’s nothing wrong with farm to table, it is a great notion. But to suggest (it’s beyond suggesting, isn’t it) that there is some kind of environmental, health, economic or moral superiority of that process over “processed” foods like Lays Chips is not giving a fair shake to the processed foods we enjoy. I propose that these processed foods are true wonders of our modern world and indeed are safer, more economical and perhaps even more environmentally friendly than almost anyone gives them credit for.

All hail the potato chip! All hail the tortilla chip! And yes, Frito Lay has me on their payroll too. It’s actually hard keeping up with all the people paying me to say these things: Exxon, the Kochs, and now Frito Lay. What AM I going to do with all of this money? Oh, I know, I am stuck in a vicious cycle whereupon the company pays me and then my only choice is to consume the goods they corner the market with.

8 Responses to “Grimy Hands From Farm to Table”

  1. sherlock says:

    My girlfriend is the same way about local foods. But I’m in that stage now where I just nod my head and don’t bother with an argument. It’s better to be happy than right. Haha. What amazes me is that when we’re in Boston for instance and eat at a restaurant with “locally grown” foods, she is so happy and thrilled but when we drive just 3 hours away that very same food has now become the devil (I’m exaggerating a bit, she’s not THAT extreme to say it’s the devil).

    On a side note, Modern Marvels just filmed me about 3 weeks ago. I’m not positive if they’ll use me in the final cut, but if you’re watching and you think to yourself, “Geez, that guy looks like one of my former students,” you’d be correct.

  2. […] FROM Laying Of Hands source http://theunbrokenwindow.com/2011/10/27/grimy-hands-from-farm-to-table/ #family movie -THE LAMP- one family's loss shows them how to turn to Faith instead of magic […]

  3. Tom Davis says:

    I’m always a little astounded by people associating touching-a-food-product with contamination. The potato was in the ground with worms and bacteria and sometimes larger animals digging a bit hoping to get a bite. Vegetables growing on top of the dirt get all that plus insect and bird droppings. The thing is, we wash the food from the farm, and people in the food production line (I work in a restaurant way at the other end of production) wash our hands, and, if actually using our hands to hold or grab food, wear gloves.

    And of course, if the bag was handled by people with dirty hands and then the purchaser opens the bag with his hands and reaches in and grabs a couple of potato chips, those chips are no more sanitary than the outside of the bag. But no one you know has ever gotten sick by not washing the bag off before eating a chip. Even people who wash apples before eating them don’t wash potato chip bags.

    And moreover, the idea that untouched-by-humans = healthy is bizarre. And especially as we find that many of our modern diseases are linked to a *lack* of bacteria in our environments, it seems downright superstitious.

  4. Mike says:

    I thought that podcast on the potato chip was really enjoyable.

    Much of modern food production in a marvel.

    The combo meals that are $5.00 at any fast food joint? Amazing!

  5. Rod says:

    I just washed off unknown dirt and slime from two celery stalks I am using for a batch of pollock chowder. I know the origin of the fish: my son and I caught a ton of pollock on the Bunny Clark about a month ago and got it into the freezer within 24 hours of it swimming in the ocean. The celery comes from California, where United Farm Workers workers toil in the fields, far from a toilet. I’d rather know where my celery comes from, but this time of year the only local produce available are apples, cider, squash and pumpkins.

    When I was in third grade, one of the missions of progressive education then was to get kids to wash their hands before partaking of a really, really bad-tasting and starchy lunch. We had these pamphlets that showed how cute little raccoons received instruction from their mothers to wash their hands and even wash their fruit and vegetables in the creek before eating. So we went to the bathroom and washed our hands.

    Little did we know that raccoon reality was a lot different than that. Ever smell a raccoon (after shooting it or running over it with a vehicle)? It’s fair to say that if raccoons are clean with their paws, they make up for it by behaving like Wall Street protesters. Also, their food preferences are for partially eaten and decayed human being food in garbage cans. Oh, okay, once the raccoons demolished a whole acre of sweet corn I had planted behind my barn. It was not quite ready, so after checking out one ear of corn, their little raccoon brains told them to check another ear, and so on down the row, probably without washing their little paws. A final question: where do the raccoons, uh, go? In the creek, probably, while washing their little paws. Ewwwww!

    Have you tried Pringles’ Honey Mustard chips? Yum.

  6. … like “I Pencil” but you cannot eat a pencil, so this was better. Thanks!

    Myself, I am a fan of “local” because I do not see the need to burn fuel to get from afar what you can get here. However, it is a fact that in the ancient Greek world, cities that exported wine also imported wine; and cities that exported ceramics also brought them in. Why? Because different is worth paying for.

  7. Scam says:

    “Myself, I am a fan of “local” because I do not see the need to burn fuel to get from afar what you can get here.”

    This can be a faulty assumption. If a big rig brings in 250,000 apples from 2,000 miles away burning fuel at 10 mpg, and a pickup brings in 500 apples from 10 miles away at 20 mpg, you then get 1,250 apples per gallon of fuel from the rig, and 1,000 apples per gallon of fuel for the “local” apples.

    Of course those are hypothetical numbers, but still very realistic. My point being that you just can’t assume that buying locally will prevent less fuel from being consumed.

  8. wintercow20 says:

    Much ink has been spilled, I’ll do a post on food miles shortly. Here’s what I’ll reference: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es702969f

    Here is an old post of mine for what I’ll reprise: http://theunbrokenwindow.com/2010/12/09/unsuccessfully-measuring-success/

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