Back to the future

by Maureen Ogle
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Digital foods
A food culture of consumer entitlement rises — again.

Hop into the way-back machine. We’re headed to 1985 and the wonderland that is an American grocery store.

The meat department caters to every income range and taste: Prime beef for yuppies enjoying their 15 minutes of affluence and fame. Chops and ham for pork’s devoted (but dwindling number of) fans. Chicken, chicken and more chicken (in 1987, it would replace beef as America’s favorite meat): Broilers, whole and cut-up. Chicken breasts, bone/skin on or off. Pre-cut, wok-ready “strips.”

The frozen-food section is stuffed with meat-based entrees any way we want ’em: Asian, Mexican, low calorie, low fat. Stacks of meat-laden pizzas sit next to single-serving burritos (seasoned hot or mild; your choice) and meaty “pocket” snacks aimed at kids with microwave ovens. (Americans met the microwave in the 1970s. As a purveyor of culinary disruption, it is topped only by the introduction of household refrigerator/freezers in the 1920s.)

But we’re not in the mood for “cooking,” so we head to the store’s in-house delicatessen. There we find rows of stainless-steel tubs filled with entrees and salads rich in chicken, beef and pork. And it’s hot and ready to eat, and we can buy as much or as little as we want, thanks to piles of plastic (microwaveable) containers.

Sounds familiar, right? We could just as easily be in 2015 as 1985. But the 1980s marked the moment when the Age of the Consumer reached full flower, the result of 50 years of federal legislation and policy that affirmed consumers’ rights and nurtured an entrenched consumer consciousness. The result was (and is) a society that oozes entitlement, and nowhere is that more obvious than in its food culture.

Infinite market niches

Food in America had long been like air: omnipresent and thus taken for granted. By the 1980s, however, Americans expected food emporiums to cater to their every whim, craving or fad. The proof was in the price: Americans spent a mere 15 percent of their incomes to eat better than anyone at any time on Earth – and that price was so low that they could even afford to pay someone else to fix it. In the 1980s, Americans spent almost half their food dollars “away from home.”

Chain restaurants flourished by catering to one consumer niche or another, offering everything from drive-through feasts of nuggets and tacos, to all-you-can-eat steak buffets, to oases of refinement where chefs concocted pricey exotica-as-edible art. (It is worth noting that this low-cost cornucopia was available despite record global demand thanks to emerging middle-class consumers in places like Japan and South America.)

1980s edition of Meat&Poultry magazine
The 1980s marked the moment with the Age of the Consumer reached full flower.

The dynamics that governed the Age of the Consumer were simple: Consumer consciousness equaled entitlement equaled an expectation that any desire would be met – equaled an infinity of market niches. Extracting profit from those niches required agility and information. That’s why grocery chains, for example, spent the 1980s investing millions in technologies that tracked and decoded every transaction; therein lay the keys to the niches.

Food packages began sporting weird black-and-white diagrams. Slender red beams emanated from check-out conveyor belts, where beeping gizmos transformed transaction into data and dispatched it (via some mysterious process) to some distant (equally mysterious) location where someone (or something) interpreted the market’s billions of pulses.

So, too, successful food processors, meatpackers and livestock growers understood that survival depended on obeying the data, and that profitability lay in using it to predict niche formation and behavior. Few achieved greater success (and profit) than Mike Harper. In the early 1970s, he had been hired to rescue ConAgra, at the time a middling, unfocused grain and food company teetering on collapse. Harper saved the day, and in the ’80s he transformed “ConAg” into a meat-centric, global food behemoth that catered to multiple niches. He bought grain mills and port access, but he also purchased decrepit Armour and battle-ravaged Monfort of Greeley, Colo., turning their ledgers from red to black. (Ken Monfort described Harper as the “big friend” he’d been looking for.) Those packing plants provided raw materials for ConAgra’s many processing operations, among them another Harper acquisition: frozen-food specialist Banquet.

Colorado cattle rancher Mel Coleman, in contrast, bet his family’s fortunes on just one niche: the voguish-but-moving-mainstream demand for “natural” foods. Like many in the meat industry, the Colemans’ cattle operation barely survived the ’70s. So as the decade turned, the family gambled on a niche fueled by shoppers willing to pay more for what amounted to less: “natural” meat, no hormones or antibiotics included.

Coleman scoured the western US in search of like-minded retailers and consumers, wooing the former with his cowboy attitude and the latter via one tooth-pick-stabbed sample after another. By decade’s end, Coleman Natural Beef boasted 1,500 retail accounts and annual sales of $20 million; sold both beef and lamb; and contracted with another 30 ranchers.

Got to be specific

Indeed, in the 1980s, “contract” livestock production soared because it suited the needs of a fragmented market. After all, packers and processors – and by the 1980s, they were typically one and the same – weren’t interested in livestock. Rather, they wanted two- and four-legged sources of specific kinds of chicken, beef and pork. One beef for the natural food niche; another for burger makers. One meat for Asia; another for Germany. One for American dieters and food faddists; another for teens in search of a snack. The most efficient way to ensure that specificity was through contract growers who followed corporate dictates and added value right on the farm (indeed, in the womb) in the form of, for example, “biotechnologies” such as protein somatotropin (pST).

It’s no coincidence that in the 1980s, consumer advocacy matured into a full-fledged (non-profit) industry, complete with lobbyists and close ties to legislators and policymakers. Consumer advocacy served as a neo-puritan counterweight for consumers otherwise wallowing in excess, and non-profits traded in guilt and paranoia. They wooed would-be donors with harrowing tales of the dangers and evils lurking in anything and everything, from meat (heart disease) to vegetables (pesticides) to livestock confinement (animal abuse and environmental degradation). Consumer advocates railed against “factory farms” and contract farming, and touted farmers’ markets and urban gardens as wholesome alternatives to a “broken” food system built by greedy corporations.

No wonder we did a double-take when the way-back machine returned us to 2015: For a few seconds, we weren’t sure what year we were in.

Maureen Ogle is a historian and author living in Ames, Iowa. Her most recent book is “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America.”

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