When the USDA adopted an official “organic” label, the decision was a bittersweet mixture of successes and setbacks for the real food movement. On one hand, the glossy sticker on organic produce has provided a visual shorthand for harried eaters to make smarter food purchases. However, the trade-off for that easy recognition and broad reach has been that large corporations have horned in on the market, watering down the regulartory standards and prompting groups like the Organic Consumer’s Association to run campaigns in defense of more stringent guidelines. So, when the locavore phenomenon took off (even nabbing the “Word of the Year” accolade in 2007 from the Oxford English Dictionary), it seemed like locally-grown foods might be a tougher nut for agri-business to crack. Not so.
Last year, Wal-Mart entered the “local foods” business when it began signing contracts with regional suppliers for its stores’ produce. As NPR reported, the decision made sound economic sense by saving on fuel costs, and it also gave the giant retailer an additional marketing tool. While Wal-Mart’s move was a big step for the recognition of local food systems, they still purchase almost exclusively from large suppliers and local is understood as “same state.” Today, the New York Times wrote about the latest corporations to join the local eating bandwagon: food processors.
[ConAgra] recently began a marketing campaign to highlight its Hunt’s canned tomatoes, most of which are grown within 120 miles of its Oakdale, Calif., processing plant.
Of course, the tomatoes would be local only to people in the area. But if the company can show consumers its tomatoes are grown near the plant that processes them, shoppers who want to know where their food comes from might be more apt to buy them.
“The problem is there is absolutely no way we can have local produce within 100 miles of every person in America, so the question is how do we take it to that next level,” said Phil Lempert, a grocery industry analyst…
When it comes to marketing their food products, large corporations will go to great lengths to co-opt the language and strategies of alternative food systems. It’s been a surreal month for big food businesses, with Pepsi promoting their “Throwback” colas that use real sugar in place of corn syrup, and an increasing number of corporations touting their small ingredient lists. The fact Haagen-Dazs would introduce a new line of five-ingredient ice creams is a sign of the growing influence of figures like Michael Pollan, who has implored people to eat only the foods their grandmothers would recognize. Just the other evening, I saw a television commercial for corn chips, in which a female shopper compared the ingredients list of a vaguely up-scale brand of tortilla chips with that of Tostitos, finally selecting the Tostitos because they were made with only corn, oil and salt.
It’s hard to argue about the potential good that could come from more companies choosing local suppliers, switching to compostable packaging, and paring down their additives and chemical ingredients. But do these companies truly follow the spirit of the sustainable food movement, or just its most easily repeated dictates? It seems like it is only a matter of time before large retailers figure out how to turn backyard veggie gardening into a marketing tool for their own produce.