Underripe and overprocessed: the perplexities of our food supply

tomato_ripening_cherries_big.121132938_stdThis post is informed by both my position as a researcher interested in the ways in which our food system operates, especially the role of  retailers in delivering foods to our plates, and my position as a consumer in almost daily quest for good food to put on the family dinner table. It is in these roles that I have been facing a paradox – the one I called “the paradox of underripe and overprocessed”. As a researcher I have read a lot about the food industry and I am well familiar with the term “added value”. It refers to a quality that is not intrinsic to the product and has been added to it by the manufacturer during the production process which then justifies its premium pricing or, to put it simply, added value implies that the manufacturer has done something to the product to improve it in one way or another for which he can then charge a higher price.  One example from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is old good breakfast cereals, which is essentially corn or any other cereal crop that have been processed, loaded with sugar and possibly vitamins to deliver a perfectly quick, convenient and mess-free (and let’s admit, tasty) breakfast to the  majority of contemporary western households.  Another example, equally familiar to every food shopper, is all sorts and kinds of foods coming with a prefix “pre” on a label – pre-cut fruits, pre-sliced bread, pre-washed potatoes – here the burden of “pre”-preparing of the product has been taken by the manufacturer to make consumers’ life easier (and no doubts to charge a higher price). Now I could understand (maybe) why some people are willing to pay twofold and threefold prices for something that they can’t (in the case of cereals) or don’t want (in the case of all the “pre”-products) to do themselves, but I absolutely refused to support the unashamed abuse of the “added value” notion, which manufacturers and retailers seemed to be stretching beyond any acceptable limits. I am now talking about one particular issue and that is the ripeness of fruits that are sold in the supermarkets or, to be more correct, the underripeness thereof.  During the first couple of years of my life in the UK I could not figure out why all fruits we buy are so hard to the touch (and even to the teeth), pale, have absolutely no smell (!) and, to the greatest disappointment, all taste kind of the same or, actually, do no taste of ANYTHING. I honestly could not understand why these fruits are not as juicy, sweet and aromatic as I always knew them and as they actually should be. Later, as I set out on my research voyage, I learned some of the food industry’s rules and laws of operation, including that all fruits imported to the country and sold by retailers have to be picked up well ahead of the time since only an underripe fruit can survive the long travel and vicissitudes of transportation to be delivered to the supermarket in a saleable condition, which  means no bruises, no blemishes, all fruits of a uniform shape and size and gloss (a strict selection process awaits every single pretender to a supermarket shelf before it is “admitted” to enter a store). y4893e06But that also means a tasteless, scentless fruit which has to bear “handling instructions” (a big thank you indeed!) on a label stating that the fruit has to be ripened at home (one saleslady at Sainsbury’s was so kind that she advised me on the best way and place to do this and that turned out to be the top of the fridge). Now I won’t discuss the fact that many of these “perfectly ripe and ready” fruits turn out to be equally hard and tasteless as their “ripen at home” counterparts, but what I refused to understand and accept is why are consumers forced to pay more (and the cost might be up to 300 % higher according to this Daily Mail article ) for a quality that just has to be there? Aren’t fruits supposed to be picked up and eaten when they are ripe? Don’t they ripen naturally, on trees? Where is the added value in that? What kind of “art of fruit ripening” has to be applied by retailers to get the fruits to the desirable condition?And so I decided to research the subject a bit just to understand what seemed to be completely beyond my understanding. This Guardin article helped explain why ripe and ready fruits cost more – it is because retailers do indeed have to use  specific technologies (warm air, texture analysis, acoustic testing, penetrometer, infra-red tests – how have we come this far?) to ripen fruits that would not survive the transportation if picked up already soft and juicy. But the question still remains as to whether it is worth going to such pains to transport produce from the other end of the globe and pay threefold prices for artificially ripened fruits which in the end fail to deliver the taste, smell, and flavor of something that has been grown locally and ripened naturally? I prefer delicious English strawberries. Just in season.

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