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.