February 2005: Industrial Food

Is your restaurant meal freshly made and cooked? Probably not.
February 1, 2005

The next time you go to a locally-owned Canadian restaurant and order the special—e.g., veal cordon bleu, wedge potatoes, mixed vegetables and salad—you may imagine cooks in the restaurant kitchen busily cutting meat and vegetables, combining them with spices and other ingredients to prepare your meal. You’re probably wrong.

More likely, restaurant employees are taking pre-made, frozen veal cordon bleu portions (veal wrapped around cheese and battered) out of a plastic-lined box. The frozen, flavoured potato wedges come out of another box or bag, as do the mixed vegetables. The salad greens—also pre-cut and mixed—are taken from still another large plastic bag. As for the salad dressing, it’s dipped from a 20-litre pail.

In short, it’s probable that no one in the restaurant kitchen did anything that we would recognize as original cooking. No one reads a recipe or uses a sharp knife to cut up fresh ingredients. The pre-made entrees and side-dishes are delivered by trucks to back-door loading docks. In many restaurants, the “kitchen” has merely become a place where the food is taken from packages, defrosted, assembled, and heated.

This is how the North American restaurant system is being restructured. Food preparation is being “de-localized”—removed from local eating places and relocated in food factories, often thousands of miles away. And restaurant food preparation is also increasingly disconnected in time—produced days or weeks ahead of an order.

The driving force behind this transformation are transnational corporations such as SYSCO.

The SYSCO Corporation last year had sales of nearly $35 billion [Cdn], giving it about a 13% market share of the North American food-service distribution industry. In its annual report, SYSCO reports that it “distributes from 145 locations across North America to more than 420,000 restaurants, hotels, motels, schools, colleges, cruise ships, summer camps, sports stadiums, theme parks, and many other food-service locations.”

SYSCO also supplies hospitals, prisons, and military bases, including food for the prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It was the official food provider for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Olympians, death-row inmates, cancer patients, vacationers, baseball fans, and millions of restaurant diners all feed at SYSCO-served tables. The company markets and delivers pre-assembled entrees, salads, desserts, food ingredients, and restaurant supplies sourced from its 40,000 suppliers.

Using 8,500 “multi-temperature, state-of-the-art” trucks, SYSCO delivers “more than a billion cases of products a year” and boasts that its delivery time—from order to restaurant drop-off—is typically within 24 hours.

Just-in-time delivery, standardized products, and centralized distribution and production: these are the characteristics of an industrialized system. Increasingly, the model for our restaurant food is not Nature, or the garden, or our mother’s kitchen—the model is the factory and warehouse, with some assistance from the lab and marketing department.

SYSCO’s system is industrial in another way: its suppliers sometimes construct foods that we previously obtained naturally. Here is one example:

“Our fully cooked Classic Brand SmartServe glazed chicken breast fillets have the appearance, taste and texture of a whole chicken breast at a much lower cost. . . Boneless, skinless, 100% chicken breast pieces shaped into natural breast fillets. . . Unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost. . . Available in four great flavours: teriyaki, BBQ, fajita, and original—vacuum-marinated for best flavour.”

So it’s now possible in many restaurants to order and eat barbecued chicken breasts that are not chicken breasts, not barbecued, not made in the restaurant or even the city in which you are dining, and not made in the same week they were served. While processed food has long been produced this way for supermarkets, this is a new and significant change for restaurants.

The potential negative effects of this transformation of restaurant food preparation are manifold. Farmers are hurt as a new and powerful industry inserts itself into the food chain and takes its slice of the consumer food dollar. Farmers can also be hurt by increasing demands for product standardization; by product substitution such as constructed chicken breasts replacing real breasts; and by the importation of processed foods that contain cheese and other ingredients formerly produced locally.

Communities can be hurt as more and more money is drawn out of the local economy. SYSCO’s expansion amounts to creeping back-door franchising. An increasing number of restaurants are either owned by, or franchised to, non-local or even foreign corporations. Now, even the “locally-owned” restaurants are transferring an increasing amount of their operations, autonomy, and money to centralized food assemblers such as SYSCO. Local economies can also suffer as restaurant jobs are de-skilled and wage rates reduced.

The possible negative environmental impacts are also evident. Such a system can increase transportation-related energy use, thus accelerating climate change. A chile pepper or watermelon might criss-cross the continent twice as it is moved from farm to warehouse to SYSCO supplier to restaurant. The food uniformity demanded by SYSCO could also lead to an increased use of chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, GM crops, and irrigation water, as well as increased packaging. SYSCO also irradiates some foods.

As restaurant food is increasingly processed and preserved, the potential negative effects on diners will also increase. These effects may include reduced nutritional value and freshness, and more use of sugars, salts, fats, preservatives, and other chemicals. These effects can be conducive to obesity, cancer, and other health problems. [To be clear, however, there is no evidence that SYSCO-processed food is less safe or less healthy than other restaurant food.]

BSE, avian flu, the farm income crisis, obesity, higher rates of cancer and diabetes, the decline of local economies, water pollution, falling wages, GM crops, farmed salmon, loss of genetic diversity, e-coli outbreaks, increasing numbers of people dependent on food banks—these are all serious problems associated with or exacerbated by the growing industrialization of our food system.

The spread of processed foods means that our grocery store fare is increasingly industrial in nature. Now our restaurant food is also being industrialized. No wonder all the pathologies linked to industrial food are also spreading and intensifying.

(Darrin Qualman is director of research for the National Farmers’ Union.)