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Closing the Stable Door

About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state’s exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state’s revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.

But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.

Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.

Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.

Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:

The Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ’Ndrangheta have long sought to gain a foothold in the fruit and vegetable market, which is one of the most profitable markets in southern Italy. Police investigations over the past two years indicate that mafia families are beginning to have a presence in every stage of the agricultural market – from production to transport. The illegal activities are numerous and market distortion is fundamentally based on the monopoly to transport and distribution in the south, but the phenomenon is widespread across Italy.

The clans have been entering every stage of production – from cultivating products to transporting goods to local markets. It is a business that involves approximately 150 different crimes every day, according to SOS Impresa (an association of Italian business owners created to combat organised crime) and an estimated one third of farmers are affected by this.

Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.

In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,

Al Capone – who owned a string of dairy farms near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – forced New York pizzerias to use his rubbery mob cheese, so different from the real mozzarella produced … in New York City since the first immigrants from Naples arrived in Brooklyn around 1900.

As the story goes, the only places permitted to use good mozzarella made locally were the old-fashioned pizza parlours like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, which could continue doing so only if they promised to never serve slices. … Apparently, neighbourhood pizzerias that served slices and refused to use Capone’s cheese would be firebombed.

As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:

Prior to 1914, Vesteys had interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. The company also owned ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat which they use largely for their own trade. Major expansion occurred, however, primarily after the war when in 1922 they absorbed the British and Argentine Meat Company. Vesteys had previously owned over 3,000 butcher shops in England, and the take-over added between 800 and 900 shops to that total. Overall, it was thought that the ‘deal gave Vesteys control over one-quarter of the Argentine export trade.’ On the other side of the world, Vesteys leased 20 million acres in northern Australia where they ran 300,000 cattle. Generally speaking, these were low-grade animals, but their low cost of production gave Vesteys a competitive selling edge, especially during the Great Depression when beef prices collapsed. There were no rail charges because cattle were ‘walked’ to the freezing works, and labour costs were the envy of even South Rhodesia: ‘they employ about 200 aborigines who do not seem to have advanced as far as our natives – at any rate they are only starting to ask for money wages.’

Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.

What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.

But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.

They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:

If I kill a beast in the Argentine and sell the product of that beast in Spain, this country can get no tax on that business. You may do what you like, but you cannot have it.

In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’

The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sources

Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.

Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.

I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.

Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage, [2011] 2012).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Aussie Rules?

A month ago I had the pleasing experience of packing for Perth. In South African slang, ‘packing for Perth’ means immigrating to Australia. In the decade that followed the transition to democracy, around 800,000 mainly white South Africans left – some for New Zealand, Britain, and the United States, but the bulk went to Australia.

Australia’s appeal to these South Africans was based on its political and economic stability, its relatively low crime rate, and also on its familiarity. Its landscape and cities feel similar to some parts of South Africa, and white, middle-class South Africans seemed have little difficulty assimilating into life in white, middle-class Australia.

Shortly after beginning university, my best friend’s family moved to Tasmania; and we knew of others who settled in Perth, where the majority of South Africans seeking permanent residence were directed. At the time, I was mystified about this enthusiasm for a country about which I knew relatively little. Neighbours and Home and Away having passed me by, when I thought of Australia I imagined the worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career – and also of The Castle and Strictly Ballroom. It was a rather confusing picture.

Then more recently, I became aware of Australia as a country with an enthusiasm for good food: in television series like My Restaurant Rules and MasterChef, and in the recipes books and magazines of people like Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander, Bill Granger, and Donna Hay. Particularly on MasterChef, Australian cooks and chefs speak often – and approvingly – of something called ‘modern Australian cooking’. I went to Australia in the hope of identifying this new cuisine. But I returned none the wiser.

I ate extremely well in Australia. I am very lucky to have friends who not only let me stay with them, but who are also amazingly good cooks. The meals I had at cafes and restaurants were excellent, and even the conference food was the best I have ever eaten. (There were spring rolls for lunch and lamingtons for tea. Enough said.)

Yet in all this, I struggled to find something that was uniquely, and particularly ‘modern Australian’ about the food I ate. I did go out of my way to consume those delicacies and dishes which either originated there or have come to be associated with the country: lamingtons and Anzac biscuits (a revelation), friands (I ate my weight’s worth in them), burgers with beetroot (up to a point), and litres and litres of flat whites, especially in Melbourne. Fruit bread is a fantastic invention. I tried Vegemite in London and decided that once was enough. And, alas, I forgot to eat a pavlova, but given the amount I did manage to consume, it was probably just as well.

A flat white in Fremantle.

I also ate an incredible omelette at a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville in Sydney, and a pleasingly thin-crusted pizza at an Italian joint in Melbourne’s Yarraville. Australian food is also immigrant food: it’s comprised of the cuisines of the Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and others who settled in the country over the past century or so.

But ‘modern Australian’? I’m not sure that I ate that – possibly it’s only to be found in high-end restaurants, none of which I could afford. One culinary tradition which I did not see – at restaurants or in the cookery sections of bookshops – was Aboriginal cooking. Although Colin Bannerman identifies a small resurgence of interest in ‘bush tucker’, it’s telling that this cuisine is not included in mainstream Australian recipe books or cookery programmes. It isn’t modern Australian.

I don’t want to draw the obvious – glib – conclusion that this is suggestive of how Aboriginals have been ostracised from Australian society. Aboriginals are socially and economically marginalised, and suffer disproportionately from appallingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and other social problems, but I don’t think that Australian cooks and chefs ignore their cuisine out of a desire to exclude them further (unless I’m being stunningly naïve).

I think that this unwillingness to explore Aboriginal cooking stems from ignorance and a wariness of the complicated politics of engaging with a different society’s culinary traditions. More importantly, it’s also the product of how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed in relation to food and cooking. It’s for this reason that I’m interested in this idea of modern Australian cuisine.

Australian cooking queen Maggie Beer is fulsome in her praise of Australia. In her recipe books, which tend to focus on her farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, she argues that fresh Australian produce is key to the success of not only her recipes, but also her restaurant and food business. Her understanding of an Australian culinary tradition does not include Aboriginal cuisine, but is, rather, rooted in an appreciation for the country’s landscape and agriculture.

Organic potatoes in Melbourne’s Victoria Market.

Although she may use ingredients which are unique to Australia – like yabbies – or which grow there in abundance – such as quinces – her cooking is overwhelmingly European in nature: it draws its inspiration from the culinary traditions of France and Italy. Adrian Peace sums up this rethinking of an Australian food heritage particularly well in an article about the Slow Food Movement’s popularity in the Barossa Valley:

Both ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ became intrinsic to Barossa Slow’s discourse: ‘The Barossa is the heart of Australian wine and home to the country’s oldest and richest food traditions. The combination of this rich European heritage and the fresh vitality of Australia is embodied in its lifestyle and landscape.’ Aboriginal settlement and indigenous food were thus instantly erased in favour of a historical perspective in which nothing of cultural consequence preceded the arrival of Europeans and their imported foodstuffs. With this historical baseline in place, an avalanche of terms and phrases could be unleashed to drive home the idea of a historically encompassing regional culture in which food had played a prominent part. ‘Oldest food traditions,’ ‘rich in food traditions,’ ‘the heritage of food,’ ‘rich European heritage,’ and (of particular note) ‘the preservation of culinary authenticity’ were some of the phrases that entered into circulation.

Younger, city-based food writers like Donna Hay and Bill Granger place as much emphasis on buying local Australian produce, even if their recipes draw inspiration from more recent immigrant cuisines, primarily those of southeast Asia – Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Chinatowns – and the southern Mediterranean.

All of these writers claim that their cooking, which is drawn from the cuisines of the immigrants who’ve settled in Australia, is ‘authentically’ Australian partly because they use local produce and advocate seasonal eating.

Australian garlic at Victoria Market.

Ironically, if this is modern Australian cooking, then it is very similar to the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century, during a period in which Australia was formulating a new, united identity after federation in 1901. The Anzac biscuit – a delicious combination of oats, golden syrup, butter, and desiccated coconut – can be seen as symbolic of this early Australian identity. Baked by the wives, sisters, and mothers of the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the first world war, the biscuits became closely associated with the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, when 8,141 Australian troops were killed in what was, in retrospect, a pointless battle. Sian Supski explains:

The biscuits have come to represent the courage of the soldiers at Gallipoli and to signify the importance of the role women played on the homefront. However, within this narrative is also a sleight of hand: Anzac biscuits link Australians to a time past, to a time that is regarded as ‘the birth of our nation’. In this sense, Anzac biscuits link Australians powerfully and instantly to a time and place that is regarded as the heart of Australian national identity. In the words of Graham Seal, ‘Anzac resonates of those things that most Australians have continued to hold dear about their communal sense of self.’

Anzac biscuits are a kind of culinary symbol of Australia – a foodstuff connected to the forging of the Australian nation. But for all their Australianness, they are also strongly suggestive of Australia’s immigrant roots and global connections: there is some evidence to suggest that they were based on Scottish recipes, and they were sent to soldiers fighting what was, in many ways, an imperial conflict.

Australian cooking during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized the country’s position within the Empire: the country cooking described in early recipe books was British cuisine adapted, to some extent, for Australian circumstances. Publications like Mina Rawson’s Queensland Cookery and Poultry Book (1878) did acknowledge the quality of local produce, and even included recipes for jams made from indigenous berries. Although, like elites all over the world, the Australian upper middle-classes aspired to eat a rarefied French cuisine, everyone else cooked an approximation of what they ate at ‘home’ (or ‘Home’). The Sunday roast remained the highlight of the week’s eating; heavy puddings featured even in summer; and teatime was a significant moment in the day.

At the same time, Australia’s economy was becoming increasingly dependent on the export of food: innovations in refrigeration meant that fresh produce could be shipped around the world. Australia sent meat, fruit, and vegetables to Britain. The posters of the Empire Marketing Board – which was established in 1926 to promote trade within the British Empire – portrayed Australia as a land of abundance. The British children sent to Australia between the second world war and 1967 were told that they were going to a land of ‘oranges and sunshine’.

So this earlier Australian culinary tradition also mingled Australian produce with a foreign – this time British – culinary tradition in the name of producing something ‘authentically’ Australian.

In Sydney’s Chinatown.

For all its attempts to associate a modern Australianness with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated liking for, and knowledge of, the cooking of southeast Asia and other regions, modern Australian cooking is very similar to that of the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century – of an Australia anxious to assert its position within the Empire and to prove its status as a ‘civilised’ nation through ‘civilised’ eating.

Both of these traditions ground themselves in an appreciation for an empty landscape: one that is devoid of human – particularly Aboriginal – life, but that is bursting with good quality fresh produce, most of which was, ironically, introduced from abroad.

Further Reading

I am very grateful to Alex Robinson who recommends two particularly good histories of food and cooking in Australia:

Barbara Santich, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Adelaide: Wakefield Press 2012).

Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History of Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Sources cited here:

Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous Food and Cookery Books: Redefining Aboriginal Cuisine,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 19-36.

Adrian Peace, ‘Barossa Slow: The Representation and Rhetoric of Slow Food’s Regional Cooking,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 51-59.

Barbara Santich, ‘The High and the Low: Australian Cuisine in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 37-49.

Sian Supski, ‘Anzac Biscuits – A Culinary Memorial,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 51-59.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 25.04.2012

Famous explosions recreated with cauliflower.

Bertha Haffner-Ginger, godmother of the Mexican food craze.

How climate change is transforming the wine industry in the Old World.

How agriculture and the food industry are responding to Ireland’s high levels of unemployment.

An egg sandwich.

Read more

From Customers to Consumers

I love this video – it’s an overview of a century of fashion, music, and dance in London’s East End:

It’s not an art installation. It’s not part of a community project. It’s an ad. For a shopping mall. And this isn’t any mall – it’s Europe’s biggest, and one of the key developments in the Olympic site in Stratford. In fact, it seems that most of the spectators attending next year’s Summer Olympics will enter the games through Westfield Stratford City: its casino, 300 shops, 50 restaurants, three hotels, and 17 cinema screens.

I’m not a massive fan of shopping malls, and said as much when I posted this video on Facebook. And then my friend Jean-François, who’s an architect, made the point that the development will create a massive 10,000 jobs, and has funded literacy classes for the astonishingly high number of applicants who seemed to be illiterate. In an area as deprived as Stratford, surely this shopping centre could only be a Good Thing?

There has been a great deal of criticism of the way in which Stratford has been transformed by the Olympic site. I don’t want to romanticise life in a very poor borough of London, and I’m not sure that commentators like Iain Sinclair – who has been vociferous in his opposition to the 2012 Olympic bid – offer much in the way of ideas for providing jobs, decent housing, and education for the area. But I feel uncomfortable about the way that a temple to consumerism seems to be offered up as the only possible way of raising living standards in Stratford. As Suzanne Moore – not, admittedly, my favourite columnistwrote in yesterday’s Guardian:

Next week a new Westfield opens. It’s not in west London, it’s in the east, in Stratford. It will cash in on the Olympics. Is this what this deprived area really needs? Another giant, weatherless mall that has exactly the same shops as everywhere else? Maybe this deliberately disorientating social space will be a place of connection and hope. Maybe it will offer the local youth something other than an expensive bowling alley, a multiplex and some minimum-wage jobs.

But is this just a case of lefty, middle-class squeamishness? When I buy a Margot Molyneux blouse from Mungo & Jemima, or even a dress from an upmarket chain like White Stuff or online store like Toast, it’s not any ‘better’ than purchasing a t-shirt from Mr Price. Both decisions support people who designed and made the garment. When I buy from small, local grocers and food shops, it’s partly because of a belief that this is good for our food system, but it also says something about me – about how I choose to constitute my identity in relation to a particular way of thinking about being an ‘ethical’ shopper. However critical I may be of consumerism, I am, inevitably, bound up in it.

I am interested in the shift from defining people who buy things from shops as ‘customers’ to being described as ‘consumers’. There’s a growing collection of historians interested in tracing and analysing this transition. One of the reasons why I’m so interested in it is because of the pivotal role played by the food industry in creating consumers.

Given the dire state of the average American diet, it probably comes as no surprise to learn that the United States was the first country to witness the rise of a food industry reliant on consumers who had begun to buy an increasing number of good produced in factories by big food companies towards the end of nineteenth century. Consumerism is inextricably linked to the industrialisation of food production.

The first people to benefit from the Industrial Revolution were the middle classes. In Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere, the newly-wealthy bourgeoisie could afford to buy more food, and employed more servants to prepare it. They had leisure in which to enjoy the eating of this food – and it became a way of marking newly-acquired middle-class status.

Until 1850 in Europe, and 1830 in the US, the diets of the urban poor actually deteriorated. The average height of working-class people living in the rapidly expanding cities of the industrialised world actually declined – one of the most potent indicators of the levels of deprivation experienced by this new proletariat. This was the first generation of workers to be disconnected from food production: these were people who no longer grew their own food, and were dependent on inadequate and expensive food systems to supply towns and cities. Poor diets were centred around starches and cheap, poor-quality food.

But from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, food became progressively cheaper, more plentiful, and varied – and this happened earlier and more quickly in the United States. So what caused this drop in price and greater availibility in cities? A revolution in transport made it easier to take produce from farms to urban depots by rail, and shipping brought exotic fruit and vegetables from the rest of the world to Europe and the United States. When Europe’s grain harvest failed during the 1870s, the continent was fed with wheat imported by steam ship from Canada. Farmers now began to cultivate land which had previously been believed to be inaccessible – and to grow market-oriented produce. The rise of the iceberg lettuce – which could cope with being transported over vast distances with little bruising – is directly attributable to this.

The agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century made farming more productive. New systems of crop rotation, the use of higher-yielding plant hybrids and improved implements, and the enclosure movement in Britain meant that fewer farmers were producing more food than ever before. And this produce was processed far more quickly, and cheaply. With innovations in the preservation of food through refrigeration, bottling, and canning, food could be transported over greater distances, but also, and crucially, manufactured in larger quantities and then kept before distribution on a mass scale.

Food companies began to control nearly every aspect of the newly industrialised food chain: businesses like Heinz formed alliances with farmers and transportation companies which supplied their factories with meat, fruit, and vegetables. Increasingly, they also began to advertise their products. The rise of these ‘food processors’, as they’re often called, caused a fundamental change in the way in which people ate. Most Americans began to eat similar diets based around processed food produced in factories.

Americans weren’t, of course, compelled to eat processed food. They did so for a number of reasons. Factory-baked bread, tinned vegetables, and processed meat were cheap, easy to prepare, and, importantly, believed to be free from contamination and disease. But with most people’s basic nutritional and calorific needs now met, food processors began to use advertising and brands to a far greater extent to encourage customers – dubbed ‘consumers’ – to buy more and that which they didn’t need. Susan Strasser explains:

Formerly customers, purchasing the objects of daily life in face to-face relationships with community-based craftspeople and store keepers, Americans became consumers during the Progressive Era. They bought factory-produced goods as participants in a complex network of distribution – a national market that promoted individuals’ relationships with big, centrally organised, national-level companies. They got their information about products, not from the people who made or sold them, but from advertisements created by specialists in persuasion. These accelerating processes, though by no means universal, had taken firm hold of the American way of life.

Food processors needed to persuade consumers to buy their products, and in greater quantities:

People who had never bought cornflakes were taught to need them; those once content with oats scooped from the grocer’s bin were told why they should prefer Quaker Oats in a box. Advertising, when it was successful, created demand…. Advertising celebrated the new, but many people were content with the old. The most effective marketing campaigns encouraged new needs and desires…by linking the rapid appearance of new products with the rapid changes that were occurring in all areas of social and cultural life.

We have always attached a variety of meanings to food, but within a consumer society, the decisions we make about what to buy and eat are shaped to a large extent by the desires and needs manufactured by a massive advertising industry.

The industrialisation of food production has, as I noted last week, allowed more people to eat better than ever before. But this has come at a cost: we know that many food companies engage in ecologically unsustainable practices, mistreat their employees, hurt animals, and occasionally produce actively harmful food. Moreover, it was part of a process which transformed people from customers into consumers – into individuals whose happiness is linked to what and how much they buy. This does not make us happy – nor is it environmentally or economically sound. Justin Lewis writes:

the promise of advertising is entirely empty. We now have a voluminous body of work showing that past a certain point, there is no connection between the volume of consumer goods a society accumulates and the well-being of its people.

The research shows that a walk in the park, social interaction or volunteering – which cost nothing – will do more for our well-being than any amount of ‘retail therapy’.  Advertising, in that sense, pushes us towards maximising our income rather than our free time.  It pushes us away from activities that give pleasure and meaning to our lives towards an arena that cannot – what Sut Jhally calls ‘the dead world of things’.

As customers were made consumers, so it is possible for us to change once again. How we are to achieve this, though, is difficult to imagine.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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