Food & drink

Why the future is local for global business

Globalism, like capitalism or fundamentalism, started to become a dirty word in the early part of this century. Big companies started to emphasise that, while they had global might, they had local friendliness and know-how. This was the journey of McDonald’s, which went from being the world’s punching bag to the purveyor of cheap, honest food from local farmers.

International travellers will find McItaly burgers in Italy, Maharaja Macs in India, McLobsters in Canada, and Ebi filit-Os (prawn burgers) in Japan. The hottest market is Britain, in spite of the much-publicised McLibel trial and the outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s. Sales have been rising since 2006, and more quickly in the last two years with approximately 130 million extra customer store visits.

Jim Cantalupo was responsible for bringing in salads, fruit, and the ubiquitous slogan (you know what it is) and, in spite of his and his successor’s deaths, the company had started to turn around. The global heads then put a Frenchman in charge of Europe, and an Englishman (Steve Easterbrook) in charge of Britain, offering localism in management as well as food. This strategy also paid off. Easterbrook put photographs of British farmers on tray sheets, converted cooking oil to biodiesel to power its vans, and added chicken, a so-called “healthier” option aimed at attracting new customers. He also turned breakfast into a mealtime “event”, a clever response to the trend to have breakfast on the run.

Ironically, Starbucks, long criticised for crowding out local coffee shops, is now trying to appear more like a local coffee shop by experimenting with locally-designed franchises. KFC plans to partner with property developers to make sure its stores blend in with the mood of an area. Meanwhile, Tesco entered the US under the name, “Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market”.The trend is clear: the big globals want you to feel as if they are right there with you in your local community. HSBC already did it long ago with “the world’s local bank”. It will be interesting to see what else can be localised. How about BP – Backyard People?!

Ref: Times (UK), 9 February 2010, 'McDonald’s: the world’s local restaurant', by I.King.
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Search words: McDonald’s, Starbucks KFC, Tesco, localism, globalisation, farmers, chicken
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Why cows should eat more grass

It is a popular belief, to the detriment of McDonald’s and others (see story above), that cattle production is bad for the environment because it boosts greenhouse gases. A 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said 18% of manmade gas emissions came from livestock – more than cars and trucks. People were advised to eat less beef.

There is another point of view. Raising cattle on pasture, rather than feedlots, has the following benefits: First, grass needs only sunlight and usually, no fertilisers or pesticides. Second, cows trample the humus into the soil and keep CO2 underground. Third, food and manure are made where they are needed. Fourth, grass-fed cows have lower net greenhouse emissions. The downside is grass-fed cows take two to three years to mature (compared to 14 months) so they cost the farmer twice as much. It’s not hard to see why feedlots are favoured.

In dry countries like Australia, it is crucial to also consider water use. For example, it currently takes 1,550 litres of water to grow rice, 630 litres to grow maize, and 50-100,000 litres to grow beef. If beef were grazed on pasture, rather than grain, this would reduce water use but even grass cannot grow without some rain.

If farmers fed their cows grass, customers would have to pay more than double for a kilo of meat. While the meat is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3s, only the affluent are likely to buy it. However, with time and clever marketing, it could become mainstream like organic meat or free range eggs. Until there is a link made between the food on their plate, and the true cost of producing it, customers are unlikely to pay for its true value.

Ref: Time (US), 25 January 2010, 'Save the planet: Eat more beef', by L. Abend.
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Search words: greenhouse gases, climate change, cows, feedlots, pasture, grain, antibiotics, manure, grazing.
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Food in someone else’s backyard

Here is the very opposite of localism – growing food for yourself on your land, in someone else’s country. A couple of years ago, when the price of oil rocketed, biofuel cropping pushed food prices up, and 36 countries needed food aid, some well-off countries decided they could not grow their own food and should grow it somewhere else. Qatar talked to Cambodia, and Sudan to South Korea, about what is called “food cooperation”. It meant Saudi Arabia is going to plant rice, for its own use, on 1.5 million acres in Indonesia.

This is not the same as colonialism, when Europeans went looking for sugar, tea and tobacco because they couldn’t be grown at home. In this case, Cambodian or Indonesian farmers are already trying to feed their children, so is it wise to lease out their valuable land for foreign governments? Investors moving in on this land are risking the wrath of people who have depended on it for centuries. Daewoo Logistics recently spurred a violent political conflict in Madagascar when it leased more than 2.2 million acres (over a third of its arable land) to grow corn and oil palms. This is not to imply that public and private investment cannot work harmoniously together, for example, improving roads, irrigation or technology in those countries. But if it forces countries that have leased their land to import from other countries, it seems like a very poor new idea.
Ref: Time (US), 23 March 2010, 'The Rent-a-Country' by K. Mahr.
Search words: food isolationism, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, south Korea, food cooperation, World Food Program, Daewoo Logistics, private and public agricultural investment.
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Smelling lemon makes you hungry

Nutrigenomics is the study of how certain foods influence the functions of human genes. This puts pressure on manufacturers of health foods who try to make claims for health without scientific proof. The Japanese are already developing foods for this purpose, for example, amino acids from the very lively bonito fish to combat psychological fatigue, and therapeutic use of fragrances, like lemon, that help boost energy. A study with rats using a special compound of lemon fragrance found their blood cell genes functioned differently under stress but returned to normal by smelling the scent. This suggests that people might also benefit from smelling lemon when stressed. This concept could also be applied to elderly people to improve gene function, for example, increasing saliva or stimulating the appetite.

While nutrigenomics will help verify the efficacy of health foods, this kind of research is useful for improving the quality of life for people who do not need “medicine” but do need some kind of boost. Perhaps nutrigenomics is the new naturopathy. Much will depend on whether these new foods conform to national standards, such as Food for Specified Health Uses in Japan, and whether the consumer needs proof that what they eat actually does what it says on the tin.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 2 November 2009, 'New generation of functional health foods.'
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Search words: genes, amino acids, fatigue, stress-resistant, verification, lemon, fragrance, appetite, nutrigenomics, elderly.
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From slow to quiet food

One of the most unpleasant eating experiences I ever had was in a restaurant where the food was delicious. The only problem was the unbearable noise. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that noise is a problem in many restaurants simply because it is fashionable to use warehouse-like spaces, wooden floors, bare tables, and walls of windows. They also have open kitchens, bars where diners sit and yell, and iPods programmed with rock music (no more light jazz). There is no possibility of quiet. For diners who want to be able to hear what their companion is saying, choose restaurants with alcoves, sit well away from the bar or kitchen, don’t sit near large tables (another noisy invention), and check they have at least two perpendicular surfaces with sound-absorbing material (eg, carpet and acoustical tiles).

This is nothing like the traditional view of an upmarket restaurant, where diners sit in quiet, opulent surroundings of heavy curtains, plush carpet, linen tablecloths and soft chairs. The message seems to be: noise is the sound of people having fun. Yet, low frequency sounds, like voice hubbub or a loud bass, are very annoying, perhaps because of the evolutionary experience of thunderstorms or a volcano rumbling. Add a few mobile phones to the mix, and it’s a wonder we don’t choose to eat at home! Slow food was yesterday’s news; what about quiet food?
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 4 February 2010, 'Hard facts on noise-trap restaurants.' by K. McLaughlin, from Wall Street Journal
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Search words: restaurants, noise, upmarket, decibels, audiologists, rock music, carpet, alcoves, acoustical tiles.
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