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Letter From The Editor: Supermarkets

Nikita Khrushchev knew it was over when for just 10 minutes he visited the Quality Foods supermarket in San Francisco on Sept. 21, 1959.


At home the Soviet Premier and First Secretary of the Communist Party well knew Muscovites were doing what they always did, getting in long lines for what little was available.

Khrushchev’s Quality Foods visit is often remembered for “the bedlam” it created as the Russian leader saw the abundance of a typical American supermarket.  He lifted up a bag of apples and inquired about the price.  As he walked the aisles, he asked more questions and handled more products, expressing interest in butter, milk and other dairy items.

“Children screeched with excitement, and a crowd gathered from every direction as the chunky little Russian and his party walked into the (Quality Foods) supermarket near the entrance to the (Stonestown) shopping center,” the Ottawa Citizen reported.  “Spectators attempted to stand pushcarts, photographers climbed atop shelves of canned goods, and the hullabaloo was deafening.”

When President Eisenhower put Premier Khrushchev and his family on a 12-day “Harlem to Hollywood” tour of the U.S. that year, he well knew the powerful impression he would be making on Nikita. 

The American supermarket the Soviet leader was able to see with his own eyes probably had fewer than 10,000 grocery, meat and poultry items  Seeing “ordinary housewives” taking whatever they wanted to the check out line was an incredible challenge to the Soviet system, which produced only misery and shortages, not groceries.

In the 50 plus years since the American supermarket was a player in geopolitics, it has only become a more powerful institution in our lives. It is one of the secular institutions that we all visit  on the order of once a week.  

As of 2010, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) reported American households were spending just under $100 a week on groceries. Their estimates, which vary depending on the size of households, do not seem far off. We’re all making the weekly trek to get what we think we need.

And today, the traditional supermarket carries closer to 40,000 different items. But the traditional supermarket with just a deli, bakery and pharmacy is getting harder and harder to find. In our super-sized world big is the rage.

Again, according to FMI, the grocery business today is divided among the traditional supermarkets, fresh formats, superstores, warehouse stores, super warehouse stores, limited assortment stores, and the small corner grocery store.

Now if I go to my traditional-sized supermarket and I am in the mood to be responsible, I must in theory be willing to read something like 8 million words on those nutritional panels.  

If I go across the street, there is now a super center store that must have 50 percent more items than the traditional supermarket.  So what would I be looking at on labels there?  Something like 12 million words. (And I am all for that information being required to be there).

I know, I need just read the labels on items I am seriously considering purchasing. But, hey, I am man and we get distracted. It was not long ago, I spent a half hour reading the labels on cup cake mixes that I had no intention of buying.

I think we need a technical solution to food labels. Is anyone out there developing a phone app you could set up just to avoid buying anything with so much sugar or fat, and maybe sodium?  I am thinking of something that would be a substitute for having Marion Nestle go with you personally to the grocery store.

We need something or some one because the American supermarket Ike used to wow Nikita with all those years ago is just so much bigger with so many more choices that we are all getting a bit overwhelmed.   

We are at the point where we do not have the time for it.  Those self-service checkouts just take time, and I will never use one.  I’ve never seen anyone get through those easy and quick, unless they are just stealing everything to begin with.

I’ve got a lot of minor complaints about the time I have to spend at the supermarket.

People holding up the line are the worst problem.  Sometimes it’s those people bringing their own grocery bags and who do not know much about packing them.  I’ve also learned that’s not a good time to tell them about the food safety risks contained in those bags due to their harboring bacteria.

Food safety is why I insist on putting anything fresh in one of those plastic bags found in the meat and produce areas.  I even use one for bananas.   But those bags are so slim, it not easy for someone like me–all thumbs–to open them. That adds time too.

Then, even though I am trying to speed through the aisles hitting only those areas where I need to pick up something specific, inevitability another shopper will be blocking one or two of those areas.   I do not know what these people are doing.   I call them helicopter shoppers because they hoover over one spot.

Some of this you just have to put up with.  But my solution is to avoid the super-sized stores and pretty much purchase familiar items to cut my need for reading down. I go to the traditional stores with unionized clerks who I trust. I favor service over price.

I do not want my weekly visit to our most favorite secular institution to take up too much time. If it’s going to do that, I might as well be standing in line in Moscow.

© Food Safety News
  • Jan

    Well, as the saying goes, yours are good problems to have.
    Food risk is where each of us sees it. The last time I checked, my cloth bags were very washable. Besides: a dry cloth bag is no better a medium for growing bacteria than a coffee table. And reusable bags don’t harbor the eggs of insects, which paper bags sometimes do. Nor do they involve using valuable land to grow a tree crop specifically for the paper industry. As for plastic bags, they seal in moisture, and if your fruits and vegetables harbor microorganisms you’re trying to avoid, plastic bags encourage their replication.
    The scale of superstores is clearly off-putting to you. Perhaps food co-ops are the answer: they remain human-scaled, and their cashiers still call you by your name.

  • Steve

    Ah yes, such a seemingly glorious emporium… but behind the scenes in the SuperMKT is a Brand-game slight-of-hand that makes it seem like there’s an endless cornucopia of choice there. But not really…
    Since just a handful of mega food corporations produce most of the brands — all with pretty farm-esque pictures on the label, with the parent company buried in the fine print — if at all — our choice is actually very limited.
    Most of the food that’s there is highly processed, including many items at the meat counter. The veggies by the door are the loss leader designed to bring consumers into the store. The farmers’ share is often a few pennies — the rest goes to the processors and marketers.
    And the Big Food corporations have paid Big Bucks to be there. Just getting products into the particular supermarket chain requires steep fees — and since the number of broker-buyers is a quarter those of a decade ago it’s often a matter of pay-to-play — while independently-developed brands don’t have a chance to get in the door, let alone as a choice for consumers. The food corps also pay “slotting fees” — where the quick shopper attractor eye-level shelf space costs more to display their goods (and bads).
    So yes FSN — please develop an App to keep us from “becoming lost in the supermarket”. It could work by scanning the bar code and give an instant read-out of the parent corporation’s identity (for boycott purposes); their food safety recall record — with a key-in feature if you want to avoid certain industrial processes like CAFO style factory farm production , or pink slime. GMO content could easily be labeled, for once. And sustainability index would be great for shining a light production methods — with their deadzone, toxicity, energy and climate impacts, etc.
    It would make zipping through the aisles a breeze….

  • Anonymous

    Dan—I will guess that at least a quarter of the world is still starving and another quarter can’t be sure whether they will have clean, fresh, safe food even though they can barely afford it. This editorial marks you as a whiner and an ingrate…and maybe something that rhymes with glass bowl.
    The only excuse I can make for you is that this was meant to be funny, in a grouchy sort of why. The new trend in publishing–not giving the reader a clue that material is a parody or meant to be funny–sometimes leaves me confused. Hoping that was your intent, Annoyed Reader

  • Karen

    “Is anyone out there developing a phone app you could set up just to avoid buying anything with so much sugar or fat, and maybe sodium?”
    No app needed: just shop along the edges of the grocery store and avoid the aisles in the middle. You’ll end up picking up produce, dairy, breads, and meat. Aside from the occasional foray down the spice aisle, what else do you need?

  • Ted

    Minor complaints, Dan, in the face of abundant safe affordable food, accessible 24 hours a day in many locations. There is always the alternative of driving the SUV miles and miles each week to traipse through several half-day farmers markets with their milling, loitering crowds groping and mauling the grubby boutique foods you will later take home to feed your kids. Inconvenience and overpricing are the quaint hallmark of farmers markets…a clear alternative to efficient competitively priced supermarkets for those offended by clean surroundings and fair prices. Yes, maybe an “app”…one that reminds you how appreciative you should be to not live in Khruschev’s USSR or in some oppressive, intrusive version of Marion Nestle’s ideal of a food police state here in the USA.

  • Jennifer S.

    Dan, you should know that a majority of studies on reusable bags were conducted by the plastic bag industry. Yes, the bags may have some bacteria but should only be of concern to those with cancer, AIDS or other serious diseases causing immunodeficiency that would also make wearing shoes in their homes a serious threat to their health.
    Instead of complaining that it takes too much time to shop for food, you should complain that the prevailing culture in the United States prevents Americans from having healthy food traditions that allow for more leisurely meals, prepared in a healthy manner. We also have subsidized food prices that prioritize junk food production over healthy, whole food options. Other western nations spend a larger percentage of their gross income on food; healthier food and benefit with longer life spans and lower infant mortality rates. (We will leave out the lack of access to affordable preventative medical care in the U.S. compared to other western countries for the sake of shortening the argument).
    I hope your editorial was merely an Andy Rooney-esque rant and not a true indicator of your experience and understanding of the true problems in our food infrastructure.

  • Suzanne

    I knew it. I knew my obnoxious canvas bag and my aimless standing around in the supermarket aisles annoys the common rabble. My purpose, precisely. I do not approve of your eating habits and you know it. Now do something about it. (BTW, the canvas bag is a germ magnet but it is so cool, soooo freaking trendy)

  • There is an app for that:
    There are others, too. Let me know if you want a list.
    Eating healthy (and safely) doesn’t have to be as difficult as you make it. My local supermarket (which is probably comparable to your “traditional” supermarket) has an entire section devoted to healthier options, including vegetarian and vegan, humane certified, and organic products. The store also now provides organic vegetables, too, and it’s simple enough to read on the label the country of origin.
    (I buy American not only because I want to help American farmers, but also because produce grown for American markets causes so much environmental devastation in other countries.)
    I don’t buy meat in the store. There’s a humane certified ranch that has its own butchering facility local to my state and who sells directly to the public–though, frankly, I rarely eat meat anymore.
    (We have one of the better humane certified pork producers in the state of Missouri, but we decided to give up pork a while back. Yes, even bacon.)
    I buy tuna from American Tuna, which uses pole caught smaller yellow fin–not only environmentally friendly, but lower mercury levels (smaller fish). Tasty, too.
    In other words, I find good companies, and then buy directly from them if I can’t find their products locally. In bulk, so no, I’m not adding a significant carbon signature to my purchases.
    (My UPS driver does wonder about the huge case of toilet paper I get, from an American company that uses 100% recycled paper, and no bleach. American based, too.)
    There are two Whole Foods in our area, but both are located in extremely inconvenient locations, and frankly, I’m not fond of the libertarian ethics of the primary owner.
    I use my canvas bags proudly, and my little insulated cooler bags, too. My vegetables are bagged in plastic (which is recyclable), to prevent any contamination, but I’m not especially worried about the boxed or other wrapped items. Their contents are transferred to sealable containers when I get home, to keep the contents fresh.
    (I did try the string bags for the veggies, but the things were a pain in the you know what.)
    And I wash my hands. A lot. Other than not drinking raw milk, cleaning veggies and fruits, and actually cooking our meat, washing our hands is the safest practice we have.
    I do all my own baking now, from scratch, for two reasons: a), cuts down on the number of goodies I eat, and b) I know exactly what’s in my food. Thankfully, I have a really good bread machine.
    Chocolate was the biggie, because one member of the household is a chocoholic (no, not me–I’m not overfond of chocolate). We buy from a natural candy store a couple of times a year, and we buy only fairtrade chocolate from a handful of small companies that not only put out a responsible product, they provide a tasty product too.
    Expensive, but chocolate is a luxury and should be treated as such.
    Oh, and I no longer buy bananas after reading Dan Koeppel’s book on bananas.
    I not only buy what’s safe, I also buy what’s environmentally friendly and humane (to both people and animals). And I manage to do so and still have time to write computer books for a living.
    Speaking of which, back to the book.