Two-thirds of the way into The Secret Life of Groceries, Benjamin Lorr confesses, “in my quest to understand the grocery industry, I became so turned around, so confused by the multiple layers of motivation and complicity, that I needed… someone to explain my role in it all as a consumer to me.” This from a guy who spent five years traveling the highways and high seas investigating the contrivances of what we take for granted about supermarkets. What’s so terrific about the book is that Lorr’s spun what confounded him into an eye-opening read as he untangles the madness for us not just as his readers but also as oblivious shoppers. He covers everything from how trucking empires work (and rip off their drivers) to how product placement works (and rips off would-be entrepreneurs). It’s the perfect business book for the curious among us but – at the risk of sounding dramatic – not for the faint of heart.
The book starts innocuously enough probing the invention of the modern supermarket, using the history of Trader Joe’s as a backdrop. Roll the clock back a half-century or so to understand the evolving nature of convenience and its impact on shopping to appreciate why stores are now commonly ten times the size they were in the 60’s. It’s when Lorr climbs aboard Lynne Ryles’ rig for long hauls that we begin to understand the logistics and that “everything – everything – in your life comes to you on a truck.” With grocery store margins infamously thin, someone’s always getting squeezed more than the Charmin and truckers are a marked breed. Lorr reports, “in trucking, along with the tire tread, brake pad, and transmission, the trucker himself is another one of those parts structurally designed to be worn to failure.” With deregulation in trucking, consumers came to expect lower prices while the percentage of US household spending on food had already been plummeting. If we’re to pay less, it has to cost less starting with the expense of shipping, receiving, and placement on the shelf. In fact, over the past 40 years truckers have doubled their measurable output at wages that are 40% lower. Poor Lynne.
It’s the author’s remarkable intrepidness and darkly humorous writing style that keeps the reader engaged. We follow Lorr to tradeshows to learn how hard it is to market new food products (over 20,000 of which are introduced annually, with 89% of those failing within 18 months in part due to exorbitant graft demanded by corporate buyers). Next, we board fishing boats to observe nets dropped by trafficked laborers hired (nay, brokered) under heartbreaking circumstances. Shrimp is mass farmed thanks to “eyestalk ablation” (don’t ask), raw goods markets get cornered, warehouse workers are turned into living cyborgs, and all the while virtuous shoppers stroll the market seeking “a sense of control and a sense of destiny” to pair with items marked organic or ethical (likely neither). Even with his section on the unlikelihood of higher wage rates resulting should the populace be willing to pay more appropriate prices for what were once considered delicacies, Lorr does believe change is possible. The catch, as it were: it must come from outside our food system, “so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done.” If only his book came with a warning label: may cause an upset tummy.