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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The problem with the US food industry

Hi, I‘m Kevin Coupe and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, coming to you this morning from Vigo, Spain.

MorningNewsBeat Radio is sponsored by Webstop, your first stop for retail website design services.

All things considered, I’ve got a pretty good gig. Last week, I was in Argentina, and this week I’m in Spain, working on a video project that will have its debut at the annual CIES Food Safety Conference, scheduled to take place next February in Barcelona.

Have passport, will travel. That’s what I should have inscribed on my business card.

It isn’t just fun and games, however. I’ve learned a lot on this project, mostly because I’ve found myself in places I’ve never been before – a fish processing plant in Patagonia at one in the morning, for example, watching people process calamari. Or here in the seaport city of Vigo, documenting the distribution process for a wide variety of seafood and how food safety concerns are observed at every turn.

I can't go into detail at the moment because it would give away the show, and I want you to consider coming to Barcelona for one of the best conferences staged in the food industry. After all, Walmart and Carrefour and Tesco will all be there…and you can't really afford to ignore the issues and approaches that they consider to be so important.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about a different side of the food business.

While I mentioned earlier that my travels aren’t just fun and games, I do have to admit that I enjoy the side benefits – most of which involve food and wine.

For example, while on this trip I went to lunch with a local seafood expert, and he encouraged me to have a local dish typical of Galician cuisine – cuttlefish, which is basically a kind of squid, served in its own black ink and with a bed of rice.

I’m a sucker for a new experience, so I accepted his recommendation…and loved every bite. It was unlike anything I’d every tasted before in both flavor and texture, and I’m very glad I took the leap of faith…especially because the accompanying wine was a 2007 Albarino made by the Pazo San Mauro vineyard, which was simply one of the best white wines I’ve ever tasted.

Here’s the interesting thing about our lunch. While we were eating, my new friend told me that not that long ago, he’d been entertaining people from the US who worked as seafood buyers for some retailers, and he’d encouraged them to have the same dish that I tried. But they wouldn’t do it, and they opted for something more traditional, more safe. It was just too weird for them.

Now, I understand that we all have different taste buds and different levels of tolerance. But this I don't get. These guys were not just in the food business, but the seafood business. How could they not try something totally new, totally different? If they cannot expand their own horizons, how can they enlighten and illuminate and challenge their shoppers?

Maybe this is the difference between being a person who eats to live, and one who lives to eat. Maybe it is the difference between the US food culture and that of much of the rest of the world.

But if you are going to sell food, how can you not be in love with the magic of food, with the sense of adventure that comes from an unfamiliar cuisine, a new use of a spice, or an unexpected combination that holds the promise of delighting the senses?

It may be the central weakness of the US food industry – that it is more about price and deals and packaging and promotions than it is about what finally ends up on the plate.

I know one thing. The industry can't hope to help consumers focus on taste and magic until it is willing to do the same thing.

I could go on about this for a lot longer. But I’ve got to start thinking about what’s for dinner. I’m hoping for some adventure, preferably served rare and with a wine I’ve never had before.

For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

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