I thought I’d start making better notes on non-fiction books I read and post them here as a bit of a reminder to myself for lessons learnt, and a sort of tracker for interesting books I’ve read. Thankfully, the local library has quite a large selection.

First is The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket. This is one about the food supply chain in the US. It follows the author fairly closely as he does a lot of research into working at a supermarket, driving the delivery trucks along the highway, and fishing in Thailand for prawns. To me, it falls into that category of “fascinating and makes me feel bad for being relatively rich”. I did learn a lot.

Today, in rich countries like the US, Australia, and Japan, we are used to an overabundance of food in the supermarkets. These were designed decades ago to give consumers so much choice and keep them buying everything they needed in one place at lower prices than before. This development has helped drive the price of food way down compared to what it was, but the price comes somewhere. The workers, or the environment, or the people at the bottom of the chain overseas. It’s not always a nice place to work in a supermarket, either, not always stable. Sometimes you have analysts - people like me - showing management how they can shave off some percentage points off cost by fiddling with rostering to make it more dynamic. Sounds good on paper, but it sucks for the workers who don’t know if they have a shift tomorrow. I don’t know how much it happens here in Australia, but I’m sure there’s some.

It’s hard on everyone, except the consumer. The fishing boats are dangerous places to work and the pay is not always reliable. The packing plants need to be extremely lean to turn a profit, and have to deal with food safety audits which are sometimes more about paying a licence fee than actually improving safety (though, don’t get me wrong, food safety has improved dramatically in the preceding century and it’s good). The supermarket managers are under stress to make money, and the companies involved are so big nowadays - Amazon and Aldo as two examples. The truckers driving the supply routes have dangerours conditions at times and no guarantee of income, and the companies they work for also have to be very lean to compete. Of course, with such a focus on the US that this book had, I don’t know how much applies to other countries. I can’t say I’ve done any independent research.

I think those of us who can afford to pay more should be willing to - not just for another label like “organise” or “cage-free”, but just for regular groceries so all the parts of the chain can afford to improve things a little bit at a time. We are used to a huge variety of foods at very low prices, historically speaking, and it’s hard to go back once you’ve tasted that reality.