Friday, August 19, 2011

Whole Foods is not aging well...  

It turns out that Sam Walton knew something about America's relationship with food. Namely, it is mostly about money. While Whole Foods has certainly impacted the food retailing industry, I think they are learning that changing how we choose our diet will be a long, and not necessarily rewarding journey.
Since the letter was published on Sunday, Gawker, which originally published the letter (and you can read in full here), asked other Whole Foods staff to email it about their experiences working for the retailer.
While there were a few people supporting Whole Foods' philosophies, the number of people who have come out to criticise the retailer and the strength of their vitriol was surprising. There was so much of it that Gawker broke it down into two posts.
One response said the original letter did not go far enough - and that supervisors refuse to let subordinates go to the bathroom, sometimes for as long as 30-40 minutes.
Another said that food in the prepared foods section was made using expired cheese and the edible but expired meat that had been taken off the shelves.
"I am a former chef, so the whole Prepared Foods department is rather scary. Employee rule is NEVER eat off that hot bar unless you microwave the hell out of it to kill any bacteria. A plate at the hot bar pretty much means the trots later," claimed one former staff member.
Retailers like Whole Foods, which pin their businesses on their philosophies, must find situations like this one particularly worrying, to say the least. Particularly considering this one letter has opened the flood gates for former staff to not only back up the original claims, but turn it into a free-for-all, putting all of its activities under scrutiny.
Much like Disney World, which is all sunshine and fairy dust to consumers, but could be any industrial park in America once you go behind the scenes, perhaps it may only be a case of employees being disappointed by the chasm between a company's consumer perception and the needs of a corporation. [More]
The prime movers in the food retail industry look to me (a distant layman's perspective) to be 1) healthy choices more expensive than salty/sugary foods; 2) meat that will soon be a luxury item for most even in developed countries; and 3) a rapid deterioration in consumer food-handling and food-preparation skills (i.e. cooking).

Taking them in order:

It's really hard to make an economic case against poor food choices.
Most Americans are unable to follow their government’s recommendations for healthy eating, simply because they can’t financially afford to do so, says a study that was recently published in the journal “Health Affairs.”
The updated food pyramid, now called “MyPlate,” encourages higher consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are typically more expensive than processed foods. Purchasing food items that provide important nutrients like potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium, could add up to $380 annually to consumers’ grocery bills, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Pablo Monsivais, professor at the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.
Only the people who are able to spend considerable amounts of money on food get close to meeting the federal recommendations, the study found. “Given the times we’re in, the government really needs to make [its] dietary guidelines more relevant to Americans,” Dr. Monsivais said. [More]
The remarks I have heard from the protein industry indicate to me that this trend is just beginning. Red meat will become the luxury my parents always deemed it to be, and domestic consumption will slide south.
With most global food prices spiking, there's no mystery where meat prices are predicted to go. Prices for red meat, that American culinary staple, have been climbing as though OPEC had gone into the ranching business. USDA predictions suggest continued high prices for all types of meat throughout the decade. But when it comes to domestic consumption, the traditional hierarchy of America's favorite proteins may be headed for a shift. Chicken wings may achieve lift like never before.

According to the Consumer Price Index meat prices climbed 6.2 percent since January 2010, a rate of increase bested only by gasoline. A reduction in herd sizes and an increase in exports have driven cattle prices up by 25 percent since October, while hog prices have risen a remarkable 50 percent in the same period. [More]
Finally, the shift to buying food instead of ingredients will continue. Cooking will become an arcane, esoteric exercise for the well-to-do. Food preparation seems to be an entertainment option via the food channels, rather than a skill to be enjoyed while mastering.
I'm not sure whether you'll get it in the States but Jamie Oliver has a new show called "Jamie's Ministry of Food". In it he goes to a northern town (Rotherham) on a mission to teach ordinary folks to cook. The lack of basic knowledge among the people that he meets is gobsmacking. One woman isn't sure how to turn her cooker on, another doesn't really know what boiling water looks like. All of them feed their kids on junk food and takeaways. The idea is that he teaches a core group of eight some simple dishes, which they teach to their friends, and so on.
Now these may be extreme examples, but it does seem that we have created large swathes of people who simply don't know how to cook. I'm not talking about gourmet food here, but the kind of stuff that I would consider to be a basic life skill. After all, it's not rocket science.
Back in the seventies, when I was growing up, people had no option but to cook. Takeway/restaurant food was simply too expensive. My mother loathes cooking but still put a home-cooked meal on the table every night. Sure we ate a lot of mince (ground beef) and stuff with pastry but at least it was honest, if not gourmet, fare. We were a fairly typical working-class family.
But somewhere along the line that seems to have changed for a lot of people. What went wrong? [More]
All these trends, while perhaps fleeting, impact our carbohydrate-producing farms in some way. It is a perverse mercy that our economic flundering has made the dollar so cheap we can supply growing markets with meat and keep our livestosck industry afloat.

But in fifty years or so, how will we eat? And more importantly to Whole Foods, where will we shop?

1 comment:

Tim said...

One can only hope there is a red meat industry of any consequence left in this country, after this foolish experiment with corn ethanol runs its course.

What would the corn producing industry, and most of agribusiness for that matter, look like without the red meat industry AND ethanol?

Is corn in a bubble?