We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh

One of the tedious features of that TV phenomenon, the celeb chef, is how so many of them go on and on about the wonderfulness of buying local ingredients, implying that those evil, globalised behemoths – supermarkets – grind the faces of farmers, sell insipid products to the masses, etc. Like the US blogger Timothy Sandefur, I tend to take a dim view of those who turn up their noses as the many benefits of trade and the division of labour. And Mr S. has spotted this rather grimly satisfying story.

As I have said before, people who refer to such things as “food security” or the supposed joys of self sufficiency can sometimes overlook the fact that Man’s best insurance policy against shortages is a global division of labour when it comes to producing food.

19 comments to It would take a heart of stone not to laugh

  • Tom

    It does present a wonderful opportunity for shadenfreude, but the capitalist in me also sees it as a business opportunity for re-emergence of local slaughterhouses.

    It’s a win-win!

  • Andrew Duffin

    This is not the story you think it is.

    It is in fact yet another failure of big-state regulation.

    Money quote from the linked article: “a number of small, family-owned slaughterhouses started closing when strict federal rules regarding health control went into effect in 1999. ”

    Nothing to do with supply and demand, really, you see. It’s just the State restricting demand to its friends (big business) again.

    The same thing is happening in the UK; due to absurd EU rules, animals for slaughter have to be transported hundreds of miles to a state-approved mega-abbatoir, rather then being done in the back yard of the local butcher shop.

    It’s not a good thing.

  • Rob H

    As a libertarian and a farmer I find your choice of article strange. To give you the benefit of the doubt I’ll assume you were looking for an article to make your point and only half succeeded.

    I agree to some extent about the local food thing, in many cases it replaces quality as the arbiter of whether the product attracts a premium in the local market and in many cases “local” does not mean “quality”. While I don’t think this always offers consumers the best value (which is really their own problem, caveat emptor etc.) there are people who are happy with the quality, or more likely don’t know the difference, and simply want to connect with the producer – to know and trust where their meat is from, which is fair enough.

    The article you link to highlights just how state regulation has made it diffucult for small producers to supply the demand that is clearly there. The rules and regulations for abbatoirs in the States and the EU are monstrous concoctions, created by lobbyists for animal rights groups, and the “food Security” lobby you allude to who use them as an effective trade barrier to support national agricultural interests at a cost to the customer in the name of “food security”.

    All not very libertarian.

    Before these regulations were introduced there were many small abbatoirs that were capable of competing with the big guys because they were more flexible and lightfooted (i.e. they actually made an effort to book your stock in when you wanted and needed to deliver it. It is a classic tale of the larger corporate interests lobbying for regulation to hamper cometition from more efficient smaller outfits. It was not just the large abbatoirs and meat processors that benefited but also the large catering firms at the expense of smaller producers offering a better product and a better service.

    The important thing to remember is that this was not the natural selection of the market place but the heavey hand of the state bought off by corporate interests that caused this problem.

    I would have thought that someone who supported capitalism but not crony-capitalism would know the importance of genuine competition, easy entry into the market place and a lack of trade bariers for free trade capitalism to flourish.

    As I said, maybe you do and the article choice was just not chosen well.

    Rob.

  • Andrew is right that in the 1990s various state-processes, often involving the use of Spanish EU vets only hireable at £8,000 a day each (according to MAFF/DEFRA’s commands) were used on purpose to bankrupt and close small local slaughterhouses.

    I do not think that “big business” was complicit directly in this scam. I think it was the strategic fabian planning organised by Whitehall lefties and the EU together, combining to at once re-introduce famine locally, while pretending to care about “animal welfare” (lots of mileage in that from voters) and also preparing the ground for the 21st century part of the destruction, in which food would be forced to be sourced “locally” but without the facilities to deal with it (again on purpose.)

    I see this as all pre-planned. They lost the Cold War, but have never forgiven us, never said sorry for being just plain wrong, and are also evil and wicked on purpose.

    Sorry. It’s not stupidity and crassness in the face of all the evidence, that drives these people: it’s wickedness and love of the coming deaths of billions. They look forward to the time when they will be the only people in the world, and they do really, really want that.

    Apart from their sex-slaves of course, who will be the prettier children of the surviving starving serfs. (There are those who think this trade may even be going on in a small way now, but I have no hard data.)

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Steady on, folks. The point I was making was that the reliance on locally produced food comes at a cost. I was not and am not contesting the fact that local production can be, and often is, hampered by regulations and taxes, often in perverse and damaging ways. No argument from me there.

    But then the “localists” often don’t make these arguments about the evils of regulation so perhaps they should do so.

  • I was about to point out what Andrew Duffin did.

    But then the “localists” often don’t make these arguments about the evils of regulation so perhaps they should do so.

    Surely it’s worse than that: the localists are the very ones bemoaning big coroporations while simultaneously demanding regulations to control big business. They are blind to what really happens:

    Mr. Quenneville said a number of small, family-owned slaughterhouses started closing when strict federal rules regarding health control went into effect in 1999. Large corporations like Cargill also began to take over much of the nation’s meat market.

    Could this not be an opportunity to win some new converts to our cause?

  • RAB

    I’m with Andrew on this one. my father was a master butcher and an abbotoir owner in the late fifties early sixties, and nit picking regulation was even then forcing him out of business. He sold up got out and bought a general store instead.
    I’m all for competition as long as it is real competition, but big supermarkets work towards a monopoly position dont they? And they dont process meat like a real butcher does. Meat, especially beef, needs to be hung, but supermarkets dont bother with that, consequently their meat generally tastes bland.
    Same goes for store bought fresh bread, which is nothing of the sort. It is assembled bread full of additives and preservatives and is nothing like the real thing. But supermarts can afford to loss lead on it until the small bakery competition goes out of business and then all you are left with is the store bought crap.

    On the regulation issue though, I noticed a story the other day that KFC were only selling Halal meat in certain of their outlets. I would really like to see a Dispatches investigation into the Halal meat industry, because if that isn’t animal cruelty I dont know what is.
    But I have a funny feeling that our little muslim friends are having a blind eye turned to their practices.

  • RRS

    Back to Sandefur’s points:

    Few of those consumers who urge and declaim for “local” are willing to actually observe the full processes of their food chain in action. How many “chefs” include in their shows the details of selection, slaughter, commercial dissection, various preparations, smoking, preserving, etc.??

    Back in the 30s, from ages 12 through 16 (then came WW II at 17) working on farms at various butchering “seasons” (preferably February in Virginia) one could gain first hand experience of what is involved in “quality” or at least satisfaction of individual standards and what is required to achieve them.

    However, it does not arouse nostalgia; simply emphasises the the impacts of ignorance that experience would mitigate.

  • Steven Rockwell

    I don’t know how things are done on the other side of the pond, but here in the states we have the farmer’s market. From spring until late fall, I can go to the farmer’s market and buy produce from a neighbor. It might be a little more in cost, and then again it might not be, and I know that the produce hasn’t been treated for long term storage and transport. Best of all, I know my money stays local. The money I give to the farmer for tomatoes will stay in the local economy instead of going to Flroida or California or some other place I don’t live.

    Truthfully, I don’t mind paying a little more for a product that is locally made. Of course, I have no choice but to buy things produced elsewhere, but for all the benefits divison of labor has against shortages, that is little consolation when my neighbors aren’t working.

  • llamas

    A modern continuous-process slaughterhouse and packing plant is actually an industrial miracle of sorts, able to process simply unimaginable amounts of meat at the lowest cost ever known in human history, to sanitary standards which would make the average cook blink in amazement. Is it pretty? No, it’s not. Is it clean? Yes, it is! And it will put baby-back ribs or bologna or New York Strip on your plate for a price that’s so low that if you stopped to think about it, it would bedazzle you. Upton Sinclair would be fully-satisfied.

    But – there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? – the development of meat packing on an industrial scale has also necessitated the application of sanitary standards that are all-but-impossible for the smaller operator to meet in an economic way. You can afford to spend $500,000 on an automated sanitary washdown system if you’re moving 25,000 pork bellies a day – not so much when it’s a few hundred, or a few dozen. But the need for such sanitary standards is far greater in the mega-operations, simply because the vast amounts of meat they process and the continuous nature of their workflow means that the danger of contamination and the spread of pathogens is many times more great. Where one slip may cause you to lose a half-a-million pounds of product – you have to take extraordinary measures to prevent that. A slaughterhouse and packing plant needs to be clean, of course – but different methods and standards can be devised, depending upon what’s being done and how it’s being done.

    This is, of course, anathema to the State, where one size must fit all, and the operators of vast meat-processing combines really don’t mind that the standards that they would have to apply to themselves in any case are also applied to their smaller competitors, with the force of law. Why not have the State bother your competitors for you – and at the taxpayer’s expense, no less?

    That’s what’s killing the smaller independent operators, or certainly here in the Midwest, at least. And when the mega-operators begin to address the niche markets, as some are doing – there’s no way a local operator can compete, I don’t care how much he charges.

    RAB wrote:

    ‘Same goes for store bought fresh bread, which is nothing of the sort. It is assembled bread full of additives and preservatives and is nothing like the real thing. But supermarts can afford to loss lead on it until the small bakery competition goes out of business and then all you are left with is the store bought crap.’

    and I call nonsense on that. My own observation is that what really happens is that supermarkets tend to take up the demand for plain vanilla bread – ‘Wonderbread’, to use a US trademark – but that doesn’t hurt artisanal bakers at all, in fact, it helps them, by freeing them from the need to make and sell low-margin, commodity bread.

    In the town where I live, there are several hypermarket outlets, including a Costco, WalMart, Meijer, Kroger and others. And we have, not one, but two Panera outlets (fresh-baked artisan bread), a boulangerie/patisserie where everything is baked fresh on the premises every day, and two other independent bakeries. And the supermarkets are having to compete – one actually sells the artisan products of one of the local retail bakeries, right alongside the Wonderbread and Sara Lee.

    It’s my observation that most of the caterwauling about how big supermarkets ‘drive out’ the small Mom-and-Pop stores is actually more about Mom and Pop complaining about losing the monopoly of the local trade, and not being inclined to change in the face of competition. Our town has a Home Depot and a Lowes, too, but the old-time hardware store on Main Street is still open and doing fine.

    llater,

    llamas
    .

  • Steven Rockwell

    I don’t know if it is just a case of not being able/willing to change in the face of the competition. Wal-Mart can afford to have loss leader products on high ticket items such as TVs or computers knowing they’ll make up the difference in all the bulk other things they’ll sell that day. The local mom and pop appliance stare can’t really afford to lose money on every TV sale they make. And there is the fact that Wal-Mart forces suppliers to sell at a certain price or else they are cut out of Wal-Mart’s chain. The mom and pop stores certainly don’t have the power to tell Rubbermaid how much they will sell an item for and that Rubbermaid had better figure out how to find a cheaper price. And the mom and pop store doesn’t have the supply and infrastructure behind their store that Wal-Mart has. I’m not saying that a mom and pop store going out of business when Wal-Mart comes into town is entirely Wal-Mart’s fault, but the deck is stacked in Wal-Mart’s favor.

  • the other rob

    I don’t know how things are done on the other side of the pond, but here in the states we have the farmer’s market.

    Steven Rockwell – the UK has farmers’ markets, too. The US, however, will cease to have them if HR 875 ever becomes law.

    (Link)

  • Paul Marks

    In this country local slaughterhouses (often owned by local butchers or local farmers) were closed down by the endless expense and trouble of European Union regulations (see Christopher Booker and Dr Richard North on this).

    Animal welfare has got WORSE (due to the distances that animals are now transported to the vast factroy slaugherhouses) and the chances of a real “local food movement” are dead in Britain.

    And all due to the wonderful E.U. that the Guardian readers (the people who say they want a local food movement) love so much.

  • The Other Rob’s link put together with David Davis’ comment make an interesting, if not very optimistic, point.

  • Daveon

    I would really like to see a Dispatches investigation into the Halal meat industry, because if that isn’t animal cruelty I dont know what is.

    In theory Halal and Kosher meat are designed to reduce animal distress to zero as the loss of blood pressure in the animal is pretty much instant. If memory serves the Jewish population of Masada used the same practice on themselves to reduce the suffering. I would be interested in seeing some real investigative journalism into all conventional practices myself.

  • Daveon

    My own observation is that what really happens is that supermarkets tend to take up the demand for plain vanilla bread – ‘Wonderbread’, to use a US trademark – but that doesn’t hurt artisanal bakers at all, in fact, it helps them, by freeing them from the need to make and sell low-margin, commodity bread.

    I think your observation is clouded by too many years out of the UK market (if memory serves you’re an ex-pat?). I don’t think the UK and US markets for certain food products align well enough to draw conclusions.

    Bread is one of those. The taste of the low end of the spectrum is so far ahead of the equivalent product in the US that people wouldn’t be prepared to pay the price differential in the UK. I typically pay $5 for a loaf (less if they’ve got the stuff I like at CostCo), which is about 4 times the amount I *could* buy it for, but at $1 I wouldn’t want to eat it. I would happily eat a $1 white loaf from a British Supermarket.

    Ditto Cheese. A decent tasty cheddar in a British Supermarket is a quarter the price of the equivalent specialist cheese in a US one, and what passes for mass produced, low-end cheese in a US supermarket couldn’t be sold in Britain.

    Again, CostCo is my friend selling the excellent Beacher’s Cheddar for $10(ish) a pound versus the $17-$22 a pound in the supermarket.

    Tastes evolved differently in the US and the economics of the US market led to a lot of taste compromises that the UK didn’t have.

    All of that said, sometimes the mass production and shipment of food is a waste of time. Strawberries from California the size of a golf ball in December? They might look tasty but they have no flavour. I drive miles out of my way these days to get eggs from a local farm where they sell eggs that taste of, well, egg. And which have yolks that don’t disintegrate when they hit the pan.

    I recently found a local farm selling Back Bacon cuts and own made Black Pudding… if I can find a place doing Double Cream I think I’ll have covered all the stuff that I can’t satisfy in the supermarket.

    I

  • A the end of the forced “food localisation” road is subsistence farming and a hand-to-mouth existence.

    p.s. @David Davis. Please remember to capitalise Fabian, as in Fascist but not flatulence.

  • llamas

    Tim Carpenter wrote:

    ‘A the end of the forced “food localisation” road is subsistence farming, famine, pestilence and war .

    There, fixed it.

    Daveon wrote:

    ‘I don’t think the UK and US markets for certain food products align well enough to draw conclusions.’

    and I absolutely agree – but I was not making those comparisons, or not directly, at least.

    Merely observing that, in my experience, the arrival of hypermarkets and big-box stores does NOT drive out local retailers (as is so often alleged) so long as those retailers are prepared to adjust their business plans to the new realities. In some cases, I submit, it actually helps them.

    I take as my thesis the local hardware store, which is like something out of a Normal Rockwell painting – really. Squeaky hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling racks of shelves and drawers, it’s run by the grandson of the original owner.

    A brick well-thrown from the front door would bounce off the roof of the local Home Depot. Yet the hardware store has never done so well.

    And the owner credits the Home Depot (and the Lowes, which is a little further away) with his ongoing success. Because, as he says, now he doesn’t have to carry a whole raft of low-margin commodity hardware items – HD takes care of that for him. He can now concentrate on what HD doesn’t do – and for those things, he’s the only game in town.

    HD sells window-screen materials – he sells window screen repairs. Who do you suppose makes more money on 48″ of aluminum window screen material, colour, black?

    HD sells a wide range of building supplies and home-dec items – but they are, by default, very much commodity and mass-market materials and fittings. There’s a certain ‘look’ to a lot of what’s sold at the mega-home-improvement warehouses. A lot of what they show in catalogues must be ordered – which is no good at all to a contractor on a schedule. Our friend carries the high-end goods in stock – the fancy Kohler faucets, the top-of-the-line Assa locksets, and so forth. Sure, he’s got a lot tied up in inventory – but the margins would boggle the mind. HD probably has to sell 100 Quikset locksets to make the profit he makes on one of the kind he sells.

    And if you want fixit parts – he has HD beat all to hell. And NAPA and Autozone as well. And his countermen know their business, and will take care of you right. So what if the cartridge for your 30-year-old Moen costs 2x as much as the more-modern cartridge would cost at HD – the fact is, he has it, HD doesn’t, and he gets the business.

    That’s what I mean – if he’d stuck with conventional ‘hardware’, he’d be out of business by now. You can’t beat HD on nails and drywall. But by carefully matching the local market and the things that HD doesn’t do, he actually made himself a much better business environment – and HD helped him do it.

    I also have a secondary theory that the lower prices at Megalo-Mart actually free up disposable incomes to be spent on higher-end goods and services.

    I think the same is true of food, although I agree that the markets in the UK may be rather-different than in the US. Again, we have a half-a-dozen major- and mega-supermarkets right here in town – each with its own fresh bakery – and yet you can buy hand-made, artisan bread in a half-a-dozen stores - one of which supplies its products to one of the supermarkets. I just don’t buy this whole story that WalMart drives small businesses under, because it’s just not what I see. The most they may do is accelerate the departure of small businesses that were declining anyway.

    Costco cheese is da bomb. Real Gouda – maybe not the best, I like it farmhouse-style but shackun a songoot – at half the price I have to pay at the fancy foodie store in AA. Genuine Parmesano Reggiano. The freshest produce in town – if you go early, you can buy lettuce that was sitting in a field in California, 2000 miles away, 48 hours prior. Our Costco sources eggs locally, maybe yours is different.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Daveon

    Well, my issue remains that generally even the bad/cheap bread and cheese in pretty much any British equivalent of a Safeway/QFC/Albertsons etc… is as good as what you’d find in Costco.

    As for eggs… I’ve not tried the local Costco for eggs, but, to be frank, the wife’s mildly alergic to them so she doesn’t eat them anymore and much as I like them, getting through 24+ eggs isn’t something I can do by myself.

    A couple of kilos of cheese on the other hand is pretty straight forward.

    All of which reminds me I’m out of Guinness and the deals at CostCo can’t be beaten.

    There’s a couple of excellent local hardware stores around here, but I must admit that when I remember to get something it’s usually to Lowe’s, I gave up on HD purely on the crappy customer support and service.

    Specialists can and do thrive in mass markets. Bookshops are a great example.