Was your lunch made for you or for profit?

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Industrial food production

Who made your lunch today?

Was it you in your kitchen? A familiar face you see smiling at you over the counter everyday in a food court? Or perhaps a never seen corporation who provided the ease of you being able to buy ten identical lunches from the frozen foods aisle that enables you to stock up and nuke your lunch daily?

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak and one of my favourite quotables from his talk was this:

Is your meal being cooked by a human being or by a corporation? – @michaelpollan @ThisIsSethsBlog via @MeghanTelpner
 

And here I mean really cooked- not a sandwich assembled by your local “sandwich artist”. No matter what you make, if you are making it in a home kitchen, it will be better than the industrialized version. This idea reminded me of something I read recently on Seth Godin’s blog. Seth, if you are not familiar, writes books and speaks on smart marketing. I love him because he takes the same approach to marketing and building community as I strive to do with nutrition: breaking the rules and truly believing in the intelligence of your customers/guests/clients/readers- and then daring to do it differently.

Seth has given me permission to share his post with you and I want you to read it, replacing the example of leaded-gasoline with Kraft Lunchables, Maple Leaf Hot Dogs, Subway Meatball Subs, a Filet-O-Fish, that bulk bag of battered fries you bought at Costco, or even the pre-packaged cereal, power bar, and cookies you bought at the health food store.  Is the company that made your food aiming to make you healthier, or drop more coinage into their pockets? This applies.


 Today would be [Thomas Midgley's] 124th birthday. A fine occasion to think about the effects of industrialization, and what happens when short-term profit-taking meets marketing.

Midgeley is responsible for millions of deaths. Not directly, of course, but by, “just doing his job,” and then pushing hard to market ideas he knew weren’t true—so he and his bosses could turn a profit.

His first mistake began when he figured out that adding lead to gasoline appeared to make cars perform better. At the time, two things were widely known by chemists: 1. Adding grain alcohol to gasoline dramatically increases octane and performance, and 2. Ingesting or sniffing lead can lead to serious injury, brain damage and death.

The problem for those that wanted to be in the gasoline business was that grain alcohol wasn’t cheap, and the idea couldn’t be patented. As a result, the search was on for a process that could be protected, that was cheaper and that could open the door for market dominance. If you own the patent on the cheap and easy way to make cars run quieter (and no one notices the brain damage and the deaths) then you can corner the market in a fast-growing profitable industry…

As soon as the lead started being used, people began dying. Factory workers would drop dead, right there in the plant. Even Thomas himself contracted lead poisoning. Later, at a press conference where he tried to demonstrate the safety of the gasoline, he washed his hands in it and sniffed it… even though he knew it was already killing people. That brief exposure was sufficient to require six months off the job for him to recover his health.

Does this sound familiar? An entrenched industry needs the public and its governments to ignore what they’re doing so they can defend their status quo and extract the maximum value from their assets. They sow seeds of doubt, and remind themselves (and us) of the profits made and the money saved.

And we give them a pass. Because it’s their job, or because it’s our job, or because our culture has created a dividing line between individuals who create negative impacts and organizations that do.

People who just might, in other circumstances, stand up and speak up, decide to quietly stand by, or worse, actively lie as they engage in PR campaigns aimed at belittling or undermining those that are brave enough to point out just how damaging the status quo is.

It took sixty years for leaded gas to be banned in my country, and worse, it’s still used in many places that can ill afford to deal with its effects.

After leaded gasoline, Midgeley did it again, this time with CFCs, responsible for a gaping hole in the ozone layer. He probably didn’t know the effects in advance this time, but yes, the industry fought hard to maintain the status quo for years once the damage was widely known. It’s going to take at least a millenium to clean that up.

We might consider erecting a statue of him in every lobbyist’s office, a reminder to all of us that we’re ultimately responsible for what we make, that spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let’s scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.

I can’t imagine a better person as the symbol for a day that’s not about honoring or celebrating, but could be about vigilance, candor and outspokenness instead.

We love being told that what we’re already doing is perfectly great. We love those studies that tell us to drink coffee and wine, eat chocolate, and that as long as we stay within government approved ‘safe’ levels of chemical intake, than we’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the nutritional science continues to lead us astray far too often- especially as those studies tend to be funded by the very companies that make lots and lots of money off us believing them.  The health of our population is all the proof we should need that this is not working.
As Seth Godin writes:
We’re ultimately responsible for what we make, that spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let’s scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.
Now let’s just begin together by having our food made by humans as much as possible. If we do take the costs of all concerned into account, real food- made by humans as opposed to industry- will always win.

4 Responses to “Was your lunch made for you or for profit?”

  1. seth godin

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    Sing it!

    This is brave and powerful and important. Keep spreading this word…

    Reply
  2. Ana

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    Great post! Is your meal being cooked by a human being or by a corporation? If everyone could really get this uber important concept, we would all be a lot healthier. Shifting the focus away from silly fad diets, counting calories, “good food vs. bad food”, reading labels etc. to simply focusing on eating food prepared by humans, would have a huge impact on our bodies and our planet.

    Reply
  3. Ash

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    Good article with a great message. I make an effort to pack my lunch everyday, and to make all of my meals at home. Trying to get to a point where I can make everything at home, but not there yet. Too often people disregard the notion that for all things in life you get what you pay for, which tends to go double for food. Industrial made foods are cheap and convenient for a reason, they’re skimping somewhere to profit off you, and that’s your health.

    Reply
  4. How Bad is Processed Food Really? Jon Stewart Chimes In

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    […] Companies now are grappling to save their asses as consumers become more and more knowledgeable and begin to see the growing corruption within our food supply. […]

    Reply

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