A few weeks ago, Twin Citizen waking up to their coffee and toast were surprised to hear that one of our beloved local bakeries, the French Meadow, had been raided by federal agents. Was the French Meadow aiding and abetting terrorists with its awesome vegan lunch menu? Or was its name a tip-off to general anti-American sentiment and brioche? No, the feds seized thirty thousand loaves of bread. The problem, they said, was that it was mislabeled as “wheat-free” spelt bread. Spelt, they argued, is itself a species of wheat. Thus, according to the linguistics professionals at the Food and Drug Administration, spelt bread cannot be marketed as an alternative to wheat bread. It all turned out to be a bit of a misunderstanding, but it publicized an important and timely issue: As food and food marketing become more complex, how do we know for sure that we’re eating what they tell us we’re eating?
And it’s not just new-age foods for new-age allergies. In a manner of speaking, food labeling predates the Holy Bible. Last May, a few sharp-eyed customers in Super Target stores were no doubt surprised to see the little “OU” symbol on packages of pork tamales manufactured by St. Paul’s El Burrito Mercado food company. The OU symbol—it’s called the heksher in Yiddish—is affixed only to foods that are certified kosher by an organization of orthodox rabbis and professional food scientists. You don’t need to be a rabbi to know that a heksher on a pork tamale is farblondget (seriously screwed up).
Increasing numbers of people want to know precisely how their food is grown and processed. More than ever before, they see a trip to the grocery store as an opportunity to examine their diet and their values, and to practice a kind of consumer activism. They want food that jibes with their ethics, lifestyle, and dietary preferences; they may be worried about potential side effects of genetically modified organisms; they may wish to eat foods produced only in accordance with the current foodie zeitgeist. Perhaps they adhere to religious dietary requirements, or have any number of food allergies. And food producers today are answering the demand with a movement, a marketing angle, and a range of technologies. It is called “Identity-Preserved Processing.”
The modern food-supply chain is an amazing and efficient thing. A fresh hamburger at a local pub, for example, was probably still on the hoof less than seventy-two hours before landing on a bun on a plate in front of your lunch date. As accelerated as that history might be, it is nevertheless a history: Was the animal a two-year-old Angus steer, or was it a ten-year-old Holstein, retired after a long career as a high-butterfat milker? Under what conditions was it dispatched? How was it treated and what did it eat while it was alive? Did it receive antibiotics or hormones, and if so, what kind and how frequently? (Indeed, the provenance of beef is an especially developed science, thanks to the numerous bio-hazards such as E. coli and BSE that have evolved as a result of modern agri-business practices.)
There’s a history in your coffee mug as well. Although the sign on the air-pot behind the counter reads “Fair Trade Organic Ethiopian Sidamo,” how do you really know that it came from Ethiopia, much less that the coffee grower was paid a fair price for his effort? Or did the same guy who labeled the kosher pork tamale certify the coffee beans too?
According to Dr. George John, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, a sizeable international trend is under way. That idea is to take traditional food commodities—non-specialized, mass-produced items like wheat, corn, hamburger, milk—and de-commoditize them, not by adding features or changing the taste, but by identifying and preserving information about the way in which they were made and processed. Since verification of this information naturally becomes key, particularly to the end user, identity-preserved processing portends a revolution in food marketing. (Coincidentally, this is happening at the same moment that non-commodities like accounting and journalism are being commoditized and outsourced to call centers in India.)
The process of kosher designation is an illustrative example, but the real glamour and profit margins of IPP are more easily observed at work in the world of fine wine. The alpha example of IPP, says John, is the value that quality vintners extract from their wine labels. “With wines,” he said, “especially European wines, there have always been geographic appellations. Unless a wine is grown in the right area, you can’t call it a Burgundy.
“Now that companies have the ability to preserve identity in other areas of agriculture, they sense that IPP is going to be the big marketing opportunity going forward, because agriculture wants to become less commodity oriented.” John explained that if you take a regular worldwide commodity like coffee or cocoa and you start emphasizing its provenance, you begin not only to distinguish it from all the other commodities in its category, but also to insulate it from general market fluctuations. “The commodity prices have crashed, so instead producers try to differentiate themselves. How do they do that? By micro-branding commodity products on the basis of geography, micro-climate, ancestry of the seed, and other non-observable traits.”
To do this, producers need some way to track and trace products throughout the maze of farmers, processors, transporters, and retailers that make up the food-supply chain. It’s that sort of micro-branding—not just red wine, not just Burgundy, but the detail provided down to the vineyard, the grape variety, and the year the grapes were harvested—that makes fine wines so different and so much more profitable than other goods.
“Based on new technologies coming on line within the food-production industry,” said John, “it is now possible to provide consumers conceivably everything they could ever want to know about the way the food on their plate was grown, processed, and cooked.”