Fast Food World

02 Jun 2002

Thinking about intensive agriculture – meaning large volumes, instant profit, and low quality – the question one inevitably asks is: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Most of the methodologies in question were invented in the United States to meet the needs of the expanding food industry of the postwar years, when fast, frozen and precooked foods all boomed. Europe subsequently followed suit. Albeit proving incompatible in many cases, the American approach has nonetheless left its mark on our rural areas and eating habits. In northern Europe, the model fell on fertile ground, precisely because its natural outlet, the food industry, developed simultaneously. In the southern Europe, hence in Italy too, things happened somewhat differently. The industry’s proliferation of the industry lived side by side – thereby generating more than a few problems, incidentally – with an agroindustrial economy strongly tied to the artisan practices, small-scale production units and ancient traditions. If, on the one hand, this dualism has threatened without actually destroying not many of our small-scale products that are incompatible with the intensive model, on the other it has preserved some of the conditions for a possible reconversion.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to establish whether all this started with the chicken (the food industry) or with the egg (intensive agriculture).
You don’t have to rack your brains to realize that the two sectors are so closely linked they can now be viewed as one. It is no coincidence that the drive towards agricultural reconversion and the application of the principle of precaution vis-à-vis new technologies are strongly opposed both by Italian industrial magnates and by the farming organizations that have always ridden this wave of subsidies and low-quantity products, at last realizing that it will take them nowhere.
One of the things about this 50-year evolution that disconcerts me as a gastronomer most is its direct effect on food. The field-to-table relationship of the past (in which the only the possible intermediate passage was that of small-scale retail) has been transformed into a system in which food is gathered, processed to be preserved, canned, precooked, frozen and sold through large-scale distribution. During the industrial process, the raw material is deprived of many of its original qualities which are then reintroduced using aromas and other substances – fats, rubbers, starches, emulsifiers and stabilizers – to recreate the original appearance. All this is concealed by industrial secrecy, but it’s known that an incredible variety of natural and artificial aromas are produced and used. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser draws a fascinating picture of small workshops and big factories that produce flavors to order, working simultaneously – and using the most wild and wonderful chemical and other substances – on the fragrances of Calvin Klein and the aromas of french fries in fast food joints. Among other things, the fact that an aroma is natural isn’t necessarily a guarantee of wholesomeness. Almond flavoring (benzaldehyde), for example, if obtained from natural sources contains hydrocyanic acid, a potent poison. Using artificial procedures, instead, it contains no cyanide. In food labels the wording is generic; we literally don’t know what we’re eating.
One thing’s for sure. These industrial products are totally devoid of the naturalness advertising claims they possess. The passage from field to table is more and more complex. Today many breeders are, to all intents and purposes, workers for big industry. Many agricultural products are studied and modified (if need be, genetically) to be compatible with the standardizing demands of industry (same sizes, same textures, same appearance, same taste).The majority of foodstuffs that we find at the supermarket have been deconstructed to be packaged and reconstructed at the table. If anyone could explain to me if all this has any other purpose than to make the same old well-known names richer than they are already, I’d be highly grateful.

Adapted by John Irving

First printed in La Stampa on 02/06/02

Carlo Petrini

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