Is grocery shopping not frustrating these days? If you’re like me, there is this undermining sense of despair and lack of trust as you walk down the aisle at the grocery store trying to find something you’re honestly excited about feeding your body. I know for me, much of what I buy at the grocery store is a result of being the best available but not necessarily something I’m truly excited about bringing home. Ya do the best you can, right? And it’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s simply a byproduct of an evolving grocery system.
Decades ago, the local grocery store sold the fruits and vegetables that were in season, butchered and sold whatever local animals were available. People stocked up, canned, froze, fermented and hoped they had enough to last ‘til next season. Today, with modern advancements in refrigerated transportation, food science, and chemical preservatives, we get what we want, exactly when we want it. Additionally, consolidation and centralization are naturally occurring results. Whoever can produce it cheapest in the world, gets the nod.
Grocery margins work on a percentage basis. Everyone who handles the product gets a cut. There are thousands of brokers wheeling and dealing foods all over the country, vying for a cutthroat spot on the shelf displaying their brand, which ultimately, by and large, only comes from only a handful of mega-producers. JBS (a Brazilian-owned mega-feedlot beef producer), for example, sells under about a dozen different labels.
The inherent risk of our modern grocery system is the notorious telephone game. No one is lying, yet the consumer isn’t getting what they think.
Basically, the grocery system works like this: the producer does whatever it can to raise the animal to hit a price point that is appetizing to the slaughterhouse, the slaughterhouse sells the meat to a distributor by the semi load, the distributor delivers the meat to the grocery store, and the grocery store markets the meat to the consumer. Like any other business, meat managers are rewarded for profits so they buy and sell based upon margin opportunity. $2.00 beef trim can be ground and sold for $4, a healthy margin with minimal risk exposure. $9 trim ground up and then sold for $13 is less margin and far more risky. They’ll also sell far less $13 ground so they make less dollars on less pounds sold. So the $2.00 beef gets front and center placement with a fancy label with smoke & mirror claims.
It’s the classic Telephone Game… The producer does what the slaughterhouse places demands based on their ability to stay within their financial constraints. The slaughterhouse mechanizes and automates to squeeze their way into their piece of the pie. The distributor works out of an office, phone glued to their ear, pounding a calculator, brokering meat by the pallet or truckload. The meat buyer likes the price and brings the product in-house. The meat manager puts the product on the shelf in an appealing fashion. The consumer walks the aisle and is impressed. If someone is brave enough to ask it’s origin, the meat manager, 5 states and 4 layers removed, answers to the best of their ability, likely something you’d like to hear out of their own innocent naivety and natural human tendency toward a positive outlook.
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