THE COSTS OF CONVENIENCE
PROCESSING, PACKAGING, PROFITS, AND POLITICS*
by Andrew T. Fisher (8-30-97)
Everyone is in so much more of a hurry these days. With both husband and wife having to work, and so much more travel and eating out required with more jobs, there appears to be less and less time available to prepare and cook meals at home, (or even at restaurants as we shall see). At the supermarket, more food is available pre-processed and packaged so all you have to do is to pop it in the microwave, or unwrap it and eat it directly if it is a cold salad.
Large food processing corporations are pouring millions of dollars into advertising. They are trying to convince people that there is a much greater need for all this packaged convenience food because there appears to be so much less time available. These new foods cost the public a lot more than the old fashioned simple foods. These increased prices are passed directly to agribusiness, the food processing corporations, and the supermarkets in much higher profits. Increased processing raises the higher the cost to us. One "health" package includes processed meals, which are shipped to the person weekly. The instructions suggests that this (lazy) person also prepare fresh salads, add low-fat dairy foods, and exercise. The program costs $700 for ten weeks!
Much more energy is used to process this type of food, and the waste produced with all the excess packaging is difficult if not impossible to recycle.
Everything regarding food preparation these days seems to center on the microwave oven. It is estimated that by the next century, most children will not know how to prepare and cook meals the old fashioned way from simple, fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and/or meat. The microwave oven should never be used to cook large chunks such as roast beef, whole chickens, or turkey. This is because it does not kill all the microbes (bad, disease carrying germs) in the center of the large piece. Only one to two inches of thickness can be cooked safely. With this great dependence on the microwave, often young children use it without adequate instructions and this can be risky.
Actually, much less food is actually prepared at restaurants anymore. Entire prepared meals come in large cans so entire entrees can be heated in large microwave ovens and served, but appear and taste quite attractive. Instead of a large team of cooks and chefs preparing fresh food for us, as they would like us to believe, only a small team of low skilled technicians are required to select and cook these large canned meals in the microwaves. This greatly increases the profits of the restaurant owners.
At supermarkets, much less loose fresh produce is available. Instead, more is wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. Much of this packaging is very high-tech with very small holes almost totally excluding the oxygen (which would brown or wilt the produce). This greatly increases the shelf life of produce. "Fresh" looking washed and pre-cut salad fixings wrapped in special packaging can actually be over ten days old! Besides supermarkets, more drug stores, gas stations, even book stores and other non-traditional food outlets are getting into the convenience carry-out meal business due to its high profitability and great demand.
All of this processing and packaging has three hidden costs: (1) It reduces the nutritional value of the food, (2) components in the plastic containers slowly gas out and/or migrate and combine in small amounts to contaminate the food within, (3) the more processing, shipping, and handling the food goes through, the greater the chance for food to be contaminated and result in human illness.
What can we DO about this situation?
Since big business greatly influences Congress, we cannot count on the government for a solution. Our greatest power is in our CHOICES -- what we decide to buy and what to avoid. This increase or lack of demand in certain areas will positively persuade industry (through profits) to go in the right direction (instead of negatively by burdomesome government regulations). We have more free time to prepare our own meals from simple, fresh food, than the industry convenience ads would lead us to believe.
*From lecture and articles of Beatrice Trum Hunter, food editor of Consumers’ Research
Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Fall 1997, pages 1-2.