Gavin Stern: The mirage of distribution

BY GAVIN STERN

Published September 13, 2007

It all began when I took a box of Quaker Oats chewy granola bars off the shelf. In the past, my personal relationship with granola bars was simple. I needed the food, and Mr. Quaker had the oats: in a wrapper, in my backpack, in between classes and impervious to contamination.

"Or is it?" asked the deep, ominous voice-of-reason in my head. I dropped the box. "Don't you know those granola bars could be imports from China?" the voice sad.

Let's take a step back. I'm just looking for a decent, American granola bar for my between-class sustenance. This task should not require auditory hallucinations. Maybe I brought it upon myself - I knew I shouldn't have brushed with that antifreeze-laced toothpaste or played with my lead-painted Dora the Explorer dolls before going food shopping.

Yet with so much anecdotal evidence, I had to at least read the fine print. The box said it was distributed by something-something in Chicago, Ill. That sounds fine - what beef could Illinois possibly have with me? But just because those snacks are distributed from Illinois does not mean that they were made domestically, the voice reminded me. They still could have been imported from - and contaminated in - China.

This is serious business, indeed. Perhaps these Quaker granola bars aren't really made from scratch in the mountains of Pennsylvania by devout Quakers. Why do they have to hide under the guise of distribution? Have I stumbled upon an international granola conspiracy? How very Nicolas Cage of me. And if so, what happened to all the good, unionized, blue-collar-working-class-American granola factory workers?

I tried another box, Nature's Valley. But did my fresh bounty really grow from natural granola deposits in a valley in Americana? Again, the box said, "Distributed by . " The ambiguity really began to frighten me. I can imagine a global corporation distributing outsourced granola by trucking it through Nature's Valley. On freshly paved asphalt.

How about the local brand then? That should eliminate the need for burdensome investigative shopping. Meijer carries its own brand from local vendors. This is the Midwest, after all - where food is grown, squashed, cut and milked into little wrapped packages for easy consumption. It's the American way. Surely, I must be able to find home-grown granola here.

Nope.

Now I felt the aisles closing in. Suddenly, the boxes of granola I was holding didn't look so friendly - despite the assurances of Mr. Quaker's glowing red cheeks, Nature Valley's scenic vistas and Mr. Meijer's curvaceous signature. I began to plunder the rest of my shopping cart for answers. The truth, however, was anecdotally mind-blowing.

The only item I could find that was clearly "Made in the USA" was Meijer-brand tomato sauce. The Prego and Ragu did not specify the country of origin. The cans of tuna fish I got on sale were pretty honest at least, but I don't know much about Singapore other than it's on the same continent as China.

I fell to my knees in despair. Holding back tears and concerned onlookers, I cried out to the glowing white warehouse lights for a savior. I needed to know that someone, somewhere cares about the safety of my food. But then, peering into the florescent cosmos, I came to a profound realization. Maybe it doesn't matter where all our food comes from. It absolutely has to be safe because there's an entire government agency dedicated to certifying and screening out the bad apples.

But how would the government even know? The best apples all come from Chile.

I don't understand how the educated American shopper let this un-information slip by. Most of us eat at least three times a day; somebody should have noticed. It's bad enough that American companies are turning toward imported food instead of things that could as easily be grown here; they should at least disclose the country of origin. Yes, even for granola bars.

I would have bought an American snack for a little extra - I still trust the government's inadequate oversight more than most. The alternative would be to keep playing Russian roulette with a fork. And even though few people have become ill from contaminated imports, eventually someone you know is going to get poked because of lax regulations of foreign governments concerned only about profits for their companies.

And you know what? That fork was probably made in China, too.

Gavin Stern can be reached at gavstern@umich.edu.