Deconstructing the food chain
It’s easy to eat these days. Unlike our ancestors, who had to expend massive amounts of energy hunting or foraging for their food, all we have to do is walk from our cars into a gas station and grab something off the shelf. How exactly that chicken salad sandwich – and all the ingredients in it — found its way to that shelf is not something most people consider.
Fortunately for us, there’s Aleda Roth. Roth, the Burlington Industries Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management at Clemson University, has spent more than a decade picking apart the long, global supply chains that deliver us the food we eat. It’s led to some not-so-savory discoveries.
“To understand the food supply chain, you have to think like the mafia,” Roth said. “It’s not a linear system. The idea of transparency and traceability of processed food ingredients to their sources is near impossible.”
The main reason for that, Roth said, is that food does not simply go from the farm to the table any more. It doesn’t even go from the factory to the table. Most the ingredients of, say, a loaf of bread are shipped to the factory from an array of outside suppliers, who are often based in other countries, like China, where the U.S. regulators have limited resources to manage quality risks.
“Most Americans have no idea that much of our food is not made by the brand, but by contract manufacturers. Or they source their ingredients from myriad, often global sources.” Roth said. “Brands don’t mean anything anymore. I used to go to the grocery store and buy brands to assure quality, but it’s hard to even find an organic brand that’s consistent — you look on the back and one time it could be from China and the next time it could be from the U.S.”
When reading a food label, “Made in the United States” means that the item was manufactured in the U.S., but the ingredients could be from anywhere.
“There are some laws about what you test for, but the FDA only tests 1-2 percent of imported foods, and with rare exceptions, don’t consistently test for heavy metals.”
Food from China, in particular, has become a source of concern for Roth, because she knows first-hand what the atmosphere and landscape in China are like, having lived and taught there for six years.
“All I saw was pollution,” she said. “I never saw blue skies and I could smell the sulfur dioxide in the air. I’d look out from my window and see these rooftops that were rusted out from the acid rain. I grew up in Cleveland, and I’m old enough to remember when we had acid rain in our lakes, and it killed our fish and trees.”
Roth collected data from the land in China and estimated 40 percent of the farmland is contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins.
“According to National Geographic about 50 percent of the Yellow River at that time was biologically dead from billions of tons of untreated chemicals from factories and human waste entering its tributaries annually. Yet it irrigated 68 percent of the farmland,” she said. “So, the way it works is the plants pick up the heavy metals from the ground, and suck in the pollution from the sky.”
Roth’s interest in the food supply chain was spurred, in part, by a dog food crisis in 2007 that affected her 2-year-old Chinese Crested Powderpuff, Lady.
There were widespread recalls of dozens of dog and cat food brands across North America, Europe, and South Africa in response to reports of renal failure in pets. Veterinary organizations reported hundreds of deaths among thousands of cases of kidney failure.
“I saw that both generic and branded pet foods were coming off the shelf like crazy, spanning months” she said. “They finally figured out that the rice and wheat gluten in the dog food, which is a binder, was tainted with melamine. Melamine is plastic.
Most of the affected foods were traced to a single Canadian company, Menu Foods, which acquired its wheat gluten from a single Chinese company.
“This one contract manufacturer made over 200 brands of pet food,” Roth said. “Their supplier had figured out melamine shows up on spectrograms the same as rice and wheat gluten. It didn’t matter if you had a 50-cent bag from Walmart or a $50 bag from the vet’s office — the same stuff was in all of it. Think of it this way: Say you’re a baker, and someone wants a white cake, and someone wants a chocolate cake, and someone wants a carrot cake. All the basic ingredients are the same. Wheat gluten and rice gluten were part of the basic ingredients of dog and cat food.”
So what needs to change?
“We need to have a gradual turnover toward ecologically sound food production. We’ve turned our food production into a factory business. We treat it like we’re building a car, and not something we eat,” Roth said.
She understands what a pain it can be to avoid all the bad stuff when grocery shopping, and she doesn’t expect everyone to take it to the level she does.
“It’s so complex. It takes me three hours to shop!” she said. “I look at where it’s from and what it is. I look at its ingredients; freshness; and organic, if possible. I personally want clean foods with minimal ingredients — that’s the bottom line.”
So, what can people do? Roth says a few simple strategies can, in time, improve the supply chain for all of us:
- look for fresh and local, minimally processed food;
- buy “products” of America, Canada and Europe; and
- be consistent.
“Don’t feel compelled to do everything at once,” she said. “Do what you can. If you can only do one thing, do the one thing. And do it consistently. I would start with a few fresh vegetables or apples — and it has to say, ‘Product’ of the United States not ‘Made in the United States.’ ”
If Roth could snap her fingers and create an ideal food supply chain, she’d turn back the clock a little.
“If I had a perfect world — when I was growing up it was local. For things that were offseason you paid more for it, like strawberries. But I think that’s a much saner supply chain. Because if you’re local you know who’s farming and who’s selling. It’s not perfect, but it polices itself,” she said. “Now you can get a watermelon any time of the year. There is a reason for the seasons. For me, logically, it makes sense for the planet, and for us as human beings. We’ve got to get the food right.”