Why you should care where your dinner has been

When you plop down your money for bananas or fish sticks at the supermarket, you are buying into an increasingly global supply chain. That raises questions about food-safety laws.

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    A Colombian worker checking the plastic protection cover on the banana bunch on the banana plantation in Aracataca, Colombia. Eighty percent of the exported bananas in the world are grown in Latin America.
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It’s fun to be on the bright, shiny, consumer end of things – to cradle an iPhone fresh out of the package, select a nice bunch of bananas from a ripening pile in the produce aisle, or blithely surf the World Wide Web. You don’t have to be aware of the below-the-surface hive of microprocessors making your Internet journey possible, the global supply chain that feeds rare minerals and specialty plastics into your electronic toys, or the faraway workers harvesting and packing the fruit you peel for lunch.

You don’t have to, but you might want to.

Every gadget, piece of food, or article of clothing comes with a back story. Warlords in Africa have fought over coltan, a key element in cellphones. China has a lock on rare earth metals vital in electronics. And not just in Chile do miners risk their lives to extract the copper that makes up the wires that power our home entertainment. You’re buying all of that at the check-out counter.

Perhaps nowhere is the global supply chain of more concern than with food. In a global report, the Monitor's economics editor Laurent Belsie and staff writers Peter Ford in China and Sara Miller Llana in Mexico have examined this 
motherhood-and-apple-pie issue. Those tomatoes, fish sticks, and heads of iceberg lettuce you toss in your shopping cart may have traveled thousands of miles. How safe are they from negligent or willful contamination? What do we really know about sanitary conditions in the ever-expanding world breadbasket?

Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have sparked public concern, though given the quantity and variety of food and the distances it travels, our food remains remarkably safe. Self-interest is a big reason: Food processors risk their customers, their fortunes, and their freedom if they cut corners in ways that endanger the public. And the assumption that conditions are lax overseas and rigorously adhered to in the United States is sometimes stood on its head. As Laurent’s article notes, there can be good shrimp processing plants in Vietnam and bad egg farms in Iowa. Most food-safety problems, moreover, don’t occur in the supply chain but at the end of it, where cooks in restaurants or at home mishandle ingredients.

By some estimates, more than 70 percent of the reported food-borne illnesses can be traced to bad kitchen techniques.

Despite concerns about policing the supply chain, the world breadbasket is likely only to grow in the future. From the kiwi to couscous, globalization has made once-rare delicacies commonplace. Just-in-time shipping speeds perishables from one corner of the planet to the other so that they are at their height of attractiveness when you reach out to touch them.

The banana is a classic example of an innocent-looking product with a long supply chain and a colorful back story. A century ago, bananas were just entering the US and European markets. To get them from the Latin American tropics to the grocer meant establishing plantations and organizing precision shipments. Fortunes were made and governments were toppled in the effort. The early 20th-century public couldn’t get enough bananas. Silly songs and poems were penned about them.

A writer for the New York Sun in 1912 was so smitten that he declared, “They’re yellow and mellow, delicious – praise be for bananas.”

It didn’t take long for bananas to become ordinary, a fixture in lunch boxes and on kitchen counters – though that was not true everywhere.

It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet empire that bananas began penetrating Eastern Europe and the former USSR. In the early 1990s, the presence of not-too-green, not-too-brown bananas in shops from Poland to Uzbekistan was a handy gauge of free-market progress.

While it would be too extravagant to claim that food and freedom go hand in hand, when you stand at the consumer end of the global conveyor belt you can usually be sure that, yes, unfree countries have no bananas.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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