By Jason Stemm
As a child, I remember a bowl of plastic fruit atop my aunt’s end table. I hadn’t thought about it in years until standing outside the Jelly Belly booth at the Winter Fancy Food Show last month. I was holding the latest item to come out of their “Wonka” lab, peas and carrots. This wasn’t typical of what I found walking the aisles, and I didn’t have to go far to find myself surrounded by cured meats and gourmet chocolates. I met passionate people with a love for story. I spoke with importers and producers from throughout the world whose priorities are flavor and authenticity above price. Many of the products were PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), an EU designation to protect the quality and reputation of artisanal food products, often produced based on centuries of tradition.
When I returned home, I was hit with a rush of news that chiseled away at my renewed excitement for our food discourse. Taco Bell was accused of serving a “taco filling” that was only 1/3 meat, and Kellogg’s admittedly was passing off “crunchlets” as blueberries. The food industry isn’t new to fraud cases from seafood to produce. In fact one case I was following concluded with the operators of “Reel Fish” admitting to wide-spread fraud and misidentification of fish.
Similar to PDO, the U.S. has established protections for some foods like Maine Lobster and Vidalia Onions, but has done little to protect from fraud. The government has focused its resources on food safety and strengthening the FDA powers of enforcement and prevention, while ignoring the use of product claims like “All Natural”. It is a term now being used by Frito-Lay, who apparently discovered a potato chip tree. Even terms that have generally accepted standards like “organic” may need to be revisited after the recent approval of GM alfalfa.
Keeping it Real: The argument for quality over quantity looks difficult during these times, but we’ve seen an increased desire for real food, appreciation of value and interest in how it arrives on our plate. Student-led initiatives like the Real Food Challenge are a perfect example of who Colman Andrews identified as America’s Most Powerful Person in Food. This interest is seen in major marketing efforts, in ads for Domino’s Pizza to the Pepsi Throwback campaign where they go back to real cane sugar in place of HFCS.
I’ve counseled many producers, and what I often find is a stubborn belief that the superior quality of their product will ensure success. They pour all their energy and resources in producing a premium food, without considering how they will convince the buyer of its value. We need more than a Real Food Flow Chart. We need education and passionate voices to tell our stories. As one importer at the show told me, “an educated consumer is my best customer.”
Case in Point: For one of our clients, the Cosorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, we take a multi-pronged approach. In addition to communicating the story that romances the product and centuries of tradition, we support training and education throughout the retail and foodservice industries and sampling programs for customers to taste for themselves.
Even in a slowly recovering economy, the U.S. bought more Prosciutto di Parma, the “King of Hams” in 2010 than any other year. Sampling programs have been an important part of this, but you ultimately need knowledgeable people handling your product. It is often the staff behind the glass making the sale. My colleague discovered this while secret shopping in L.A. She asked the kid behind the counter the difference between Prosciutto di Parma and domestic prosciutto, who answered, “price.” When that is the limit of information going toward the purchasing decision, “real” food has little hope for sustainability.
Mark Bittman recently kicked off his post-Minimalist life by publishing his Food Manifesto for the Future. It is an insightful look at long-range changes that we can make to improve the way we eat. They certainly impact the environment in which we make decisions, but ultimately, as Colman Andrews pointed out, the most powerful person in all of this is you.