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Random Food Report: Chimps, Footlongs & China

The Random Food Report maintains a theory that human beings are little more than dressed-up primates. What we call the Chimps In Pants (CHIPS) Theory holds, in part, that people make food choices based on subconscious factors, such as "evolutionary pressures to select energy-dense foods to assure nutrition and survival," behavioral and emotional motivations, and other influencers like socioeconomic background. All of which can, and usually do, gang up to confuse our decision-making process and hinder our ability to make smart food choices. (In general, CHIPS posits that people are dumb. But let's focus on food-related issues for now.)

Not that we have anything against chimps, mind you. Our short, hairy brethren have a leg up on us clothed apes in a variety of ways: for example, when was the last time you saw a monkey let a banana go bad? Now ask yourself: how many brown, mushy, disgusting bananas have you thrown away in the past month? Exactly.

How Many Calories in That Footlong?
Say you are a high-school student and you just polished off a delicious lunch with your buddies at Subway. You devoured a 6" Big Philly Cheesesteak, a bag of Baked Lay's Sour Cream & Onion chips, and a Coke. (Just pretend you have friends. For that matter, pretend teenagers do things like eat lunch face-to-face rather than posting pictures of half-eaten subs to Tumblr . . . while driving.) How many calories did you take in? (Remember to factor in that the chips were Baked®.) Give up? That was 900 calories, Junior, or roughly half of your suggested daily intake of 2,000, a number "used for the basis of general nutrition advice" as Subway likes to describe the USDA Dietary Guidelines.

But your hypothetical adolescent self can take comfort: you are not alone. Most of your peers do a similarly bad job guessing how much they just ate. In a study of fast-food restaurant customers in New England, Harvard researchers found that two thirds of respondents underestimated the calories in their meal, and one in four were off "by at least 500 calories." Subway diners, possibly misled by the chain's better-for-you marketing message, missed by a mile: compared to their counterparts eating at McDonald's, adults and adolescents guesstimated lower by 20 to 25 percent. (Adolescents averaged 500 calories on the low side.)

Note: the researchers excluded outliers, such as the 41 people who ate a meal over 4,000 calories. Just as well. We imagine those folks don't care about counting calories anyway.

The Food Industry's Take On CHIPS: "We'd rather consumers not think at all." (Or: They Really Are Out to Get You)
Herb Sorenson, Ph.D., of Shopper Scientist LLC, hosted a webinar last month for shopper marketing professionals titled "Training Shoppers to Buy" to help consumer goods companies leverage subconscious thinking to improve sales. Herb's stated goal is to impart the importance of the "automation" of human behavior to retail marketers. If you missed the webinar you can book a speaking engagement with Herb so you can hear first-hand how you're screwed.

All Your Pork Are Belong To Us
The impending sale of Virginia-based pork producer Smithfield Foods to Chinese meat company Shuanghui International has caught the attention of a diverse cross-section of the food industry in the U.S., from food safety experts and disturbed consumer rights groups to senators concerned with the implications of the deal. Given the country's very spotty record, worries about the prospect of China's largest meat processor acquiring such a major player don't seem too misplaced.

Smithfield is the world's largest pork processor and hog producer and among the top ten American food companies. (The company generated $11.1 billion in sales in 2011, good for ninth, just behind General Mills.) If the deal is finalized, it will represent the largest takeover ever - for $7.1 billion, including debt - of a U.S. company by a Chinese rival. Following the sale, Smithfield's brands, such as Armour, Eckrich, and Farmland, would be folded into Shuanghui's lines of pasteurized, chilled, and retorted meat products.

Why all the hoopla? The popular perception is that the arrangement with Shuanghui will not only result in increased pork exports to China, but will also implicitly involve the Chinese company in the U.S. food market. Most of the objections with that, those stated publicly anyway, stem from the fear that Shuanghui will sell unsafe imported meat in America marketed under the Smithfield banner. That said, we believe Americans' unease (both in general and in the government especially) with China's growing prominence on the global stage lies at the heart of the matter.

Thus we suspect that people just don't like the idea for fuzzier reasons than the questions Smithfield's sale raises regarding "American food safety, security and supply", as posed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) when she called for a hearing by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

For those unfamiliar with the SCANF, the committee's jurisdiction extends to 17 issues, ranging from animal industry and diseases to food stamp programs and home economics. (We hope the recommended coursework for the latter imparts more useful skills than what we learned in high school.)

Not to be left out of the party, a House subcommittee (on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats) recently deemed food exports from China as, you guessed it, "an emerging threat" in a recent hearing on "The Threat of China's Unsafe Consumables."

Comments from the public sector in China upon announcement of the acquisition attempted to allay any concerns. Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang, quoted in a Reuters article, declared that "China's quality management of pork imports and Shuanghui's purchase of Smithfield are totally unrelated to U.S. food safety."

The message is that Shuanghui saw an opportunity to supply more pork to the burgeoning market in China, which already buys 12 percent of all U.S. pork, amounting to $886 million annually, despite a 3 percent dip in 2012.

To put that number in context, Mexico purchases $1.13 billion and sales to Japan amount to $1.99 billion.

Smithfield CEO Larry Pope chimed in on the debate: "That's sort of like exporting ice to the Eskimos. It's a dumb idea."

We don't know how to take Larry's comment. Eskimos don't eat ice. You know, apart from Slurpees. (And don't Eskimos prefer the term Inuit?)

Everyone loves Slurpees, by the way - 7-Eleven sells 156 million every year - so that doesn't count.

(Fun Slurpee® fact, according to the 7-Eleven corporate "Fun Facts" web page: "The most Slurpee® beverages are sold in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, followed by Detroit, Mich." Apparently, the plural of Slurpee is "Slurpee beverages" and the abbreviation for Michigan is "Mich," not "MI" as many believe. Also: Winnipeg is in Canada.)

We can only hope that in the course of the acquisition, Shuanghui execs resist the urge to meddle with any of Smithfield's recipes used for products sold in the U.S. We like our Potted Meat free of additives that might taint the delicious flavor, such as clenbuterol, a fat-burning chemical which is illegal in the U.S. and EU but used in livestock elsewhere to produce leaner meats.

(In 2011, Chinese authorities seized 18 tons of pig feed suspected to contain clenbuterol.) Leave out the dead maggots and bacteria too.

Appetizers, Sides, and Other Errata
* Pizza Hut doesn't deliver to Mars, so NASA just awarded a $125,000 grant to Systems & Materials Research Corporation to solve the interstellar pizza problem by printing edible 3-D pies.

* Beginning in June, some 24-hour McDonald's have started offering breakfast from midnight to 4 a.m., at which point normal breakfast hours begin. Yes, this means you can (if you live near one of the "undisclosed locations") order a Sausage McMuffin at 2 a.m. Our question: Why now? Why did it take so long for the Golden Arches to figure this out? The only plausible theory we could come up with is that it wasn't easy to develop a training program that would enable staff to deal with belligerent, hammered customers

* The Treasury Department has announced that the liquor industry can (if they feel like it) "use labels that include serving size, servings per container, calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving." We imagine consumers would much rather see labels that impart more useful information, such as "Servings per blackout."


Luke Chen is our chief (pseudononymous) Food Report correspondent. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on July 9, 2013

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