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The Secret Life of Groceries

Updated: May 21, 2021

The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr

Reviewed by L. Bennett

As you push your cart down the grocery aisle think about what choices you see on the shelves, where on the shelves the different brands and types of things are placed, and the price. Author Benjamin Lorr interviewed conscripted workers in the seafood industry, indentured truckers responsible for moving most of America's food items, inventors of new products and their struggle to get their items on shelves, and the working conditions of store employees. He talked with the founder of Trader Joe's, with industry analysts, a variety of inspectors and certifiers of quality, and the backroom folks who stock the shelves. He even touches upon the relatively recent acquisition by Amazon of the Whole Foods Market chain. He learned that the choices we find at our local grocery are determined in some pretty convoluted ways, and supplying the food chain has lots of deliberate and unintended consequences.

One of the themes I found particularly interesting was Lorr's revelation that the concept of food undergoes a semantic transformation that reflects its movement through the food chain. It is a food when harvested, a product or product component when processed or manufactured, a unit of production when shipped, a stock unit in the store, and back to a food again when I buy it. Grocers have to walk the narrow line between buying the right units and shelving them, and the idea that customers are buying food at the check-out stand. But the people who supply the grocers only deal with abstract concepts; food is not foremost on their agenda. They make and peddle products, not food. That attitude impacts working conditions, quality of goods, and the integrity of the food supply chain.

Lorr's exposé of the American food industry was an informative and educational read. I don't think I'll look at labeling and emblems on packaging quite the same again. And I now have a better understanding of what happens when I opt for quality foods at a lower price--my own contribution to unintended consequences.

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