Supermarkets: Where Does our Food Come From?

May 26, 2009

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It's a nice springtime night here in the Humboldt Park area, I'm outside of a neighborhood grocery store.  There are customers coming and going with bags of food in their hands.  But I'm not here because I'm looking for dinner. I actually want to know more about the food that's here—  the food we eat, and where it comes from. 

 SHELKE: Hi, I'm Kantha Shelke, and I'm a food scientist who just happens to be available this evening to take a stroll with you down at this grocery store.


Shelke knows food inside and out. She runs a think tank on food and nutrition, and she's sometimes asked to take her knowledge to the courtroom as an expert witness in trials. 


Tonight, she's here to counsel me on where the food that lines these aisles comes from, and help me understand a word I've been hearing a lot.  The word “locavore”


SHELKE: what it means is trying to eat in the vicinity, foods that are in season, and being very mindful of your extravagance.  You know, not hauling food from across the continents. 


Common sense, right? It's about knowing where products come from…so that you can make those mindful choices.


It's easier said than done, says Shelke


SHELKE: Did you know that more than 80 percent of apple juice in this country comes from China?


SHELKE: And the reason for that is it is not so productive these days to make juice out of apples over here. It is cheaper to grow them in a country where labor is cheap and where processing is cheap, and then ship them here as a concentrate and then to add water and preservatives.

And it's not just apple concentrate from China, she says, it's also the Vitamin C that's been added to this juice and other items throughout the store.

 
SHELKE: You can be almost absolutely sure that in the grocery store, food products, because they have very small profit margins, can only afford to put vitamin C that was produced in China.


Take for example, the box of cheerios we find a couple of aisles over. Shelke says the cereal's likely made with domestic grain…But then,


SHELKE: Sometimes, whole grain can be pulverized to such a fine particle size that it simply goes through your system. 


So it doesn't have as much nutritional value. To fix that, we add things.


SHELKE: Vitamins and Minerals


Mostly from China, she says.


HEIKENEN-WEISS: So you might be getting lower quality vitamins


SHELKE: Absolutely. You cut corners and you produce a product which meets the specifications of the company that's buying it, but may not necessarily meet have been produced under ideal conditions.


For most packaged items, you'd need a Dr. Shelke along to decipher the country of origin for ingredients.  But little by little, that's changing in a different food section…


SHELKE: she's listing meats 


None of the meats here say where they're from.

 

SHEIKE: I have no clue.

But a law that went into effect earlier this year may help that. The Country of Origin Labeling Law means even neighborhood stores like this one should have a little more information on the animal's history.  We trade the cold meat refrigerators for a more colorful produce section, where we find stacks of shiny red delicious apples. Shelke tells me apples like these beat the juice we saw earlier in both nutrition and price. 


SHELKE: This apple was probably produced locally, probably produced out in the Western States and shipped here


HEIKENEN-WEISS: And it says Red Dell Washington


SHELKE: So this apple is from Washington.


Even so, Shelke considers it local, especially compared to one from China.  But the definition of “local” is often fluid, and others might disagree with her. 

She argues the most important issue at hand is simple:

 

SHELKE: It's not a matter of where the product was produced or whether it's organic or natural.  If you want to be kind to the earth, you would eat what's in season. 


And what's in season is what's growing naturally at a given time of year …in your area.

If you want to know where in the world your grocer is getting their products, Shieke says to ask, and ask again. If that doesn't work, she suggests letting them know in a way that will get their attention:  take your business to a store that gives you the information you want as you shop.


For WBEZ, I'm Eilee Heikenen-Weiss