I live in a town of about 10,000 in the Midwest. The largest employer in the town is a pork processing facility that handles more than 9,000 hogs per day (the similarity of those two numbers is a bit disturbing). About a mile to the north is the plant's own sewage treatment facility to handle the voluminous waste of newly-processed and about-to-be-processed pigs. Across the highway, to the south of the plant, is a supermarket, and when the wind blows from the north, the complex aroma of viscera and feces is unavoidable as you walk towards the front door to shop. When bacon and hams are being smoked, hickory provides a more pleasing “finish” to the olfactory experience.
Recently, I was scanning the frozen meat section at the market when I happened across a package of pork chitterlings or “chitlins”: Pig intestines. What was astonishing about this particular package was that it was conspicuously labelled as being a “Product of Denmark”. After suppressing immediate thoughts of Shakespearean puns relating to “Hamlet” and “something being rotten in Denmark,” I gasped: Here I was literally across the street from a slaughterhouse and the chitlins came from half-way around the world?! Where were our local chitlins being sent? Did geography no longer matter?
This is not the first time I've been faced with the paradoxes of our industrial agricultural system. I once remember stopping at a grove-side fruit stand in Florida only to be offered bottled orange juice that contained something like “a reconstituted concentrate of a mixture of juices from Florida, California, & Brasil.” So much for fresh squeezed.
My great uncle, on my dad's side, was a citrus grower in central Florida for many years. When he started his grove just after WWII, oranges were still picked when ripe, shipped, and eaten. Soon thereafter, concentrate technology was developed. Fresh orange juice would be boiled down to a syrup, separated into its constituents, precisely reassembled to maintain quality control, and frozen for easy storage and transport (McPhee 1967). The concentrate could then be reconstituted and consumed at any time in the following year(s). Seasonality was no longer an issue for citrus sales, and production was scaled up to supply juice to make enough concentrate for an entire year for a huge national/international population.
My other great uncle, (on my mom’s side), served in a logistics unit during WWII. When Roosevelt set up a meeting with Churchill on a ship in the Atlantic in the months before we were drawn into the war, he wanted to serve ice cream. Roosevelt claimed he wanted to serve all-American fare but my uncle was convinced it was a not-so-subtle way of demonstrating to Churchill that the U.S. could deliver anything, anytime, anywhere on the planet. My great uncle was tasked with making sure there was ice cream to serve. They packed the ice cream into metal canisters that could be carried like munitions in airplane bomb bays. Unfortunately the air in the ice cream expanded at altitude and it leaked all over. After several trial runs they were able to pack the ice cream in so tight as to squeeze out most of the air and then seal the canisters. It worked: Churchill’s delegation was served ice cream and it made enough of an impact on them that his bodyguard commented on it in a draft of his memoirs (Borgwardt 2005). After the war, my great uncle enjoyed a successful career managing supply chains for garment manufacturers.
This was the Greatest Generation's legacy to us. They survived the Great Depression only to have to defeat fascism in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. As they returned to civilian life, they made absolutely certain that their children, the baby-boomers, would never suffer hunger or want for anything. Roosevelt's vision of anything, anytime, anywhere was channeled into civilian goods, and in the subsequent decades we have elevated this expectation to a high art or perhaps even a pathological obsession. The global merchant marine fleet has nearly doubled in the last 30 years. The tonnage of vessels idled by the current recession just around the port of Singapore is about 41 million tons, which is about equivalent to entire world's merchant marine fleet in 1918, but only about 4% of today's fleet (Bradshear 2009)!