Andrew Smith, our go-to American Food guru is back again this week with a look at American food trends. What trend do you think has been, and will be, the most influential: Fast Food, Slow Food, Factory Farms or Organic Farms? Be sure to let us know in the comments what you think! Check back on Thursdays throughout May for more great posts by Andrew Smith, editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, who teaches culinary history and professional food writing at The New School University, serves as Chair of the Culinary Trust and as a consultant to several food television productions.
A. Fast Food
White Castle, launched in 1916, successfully used Henry Ford’s principles of the assembly line to make and sell inexpensive hamburgers. Since then, the diversity and number of fast food operations have proliferated. Many fast food operations, including those selling inexpensive hamburgers, chicken, pizza, donuts, and hot dogs, emerged during the 1950s. The most important fast food chain was McDonald’s, which was launched in San Bernardino, California, in the 1940s, but it didn’t take shape until 1954. Through aggressive expansion and massive advertising fast food restaurants have expanded throughout America and the world. Fast food operations have continued to expand in the United States. According to the National Restaurant Association, fast food restaurants generated an estimated $134 billion in sales during 2005 in America alone.
B. Slow Food
When the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in Rome in 1986, Carlo Petrini was deeply concerned. He believed that the industrialization of food was standardizing taste and leading to the loss of thousands of local and regional foods. He launched the Slow Food movement in Barolo, Italy. Slow Food International was started in Paris three years later. Its major publication is Slow: The International Herald of Tastes; The Magazine of the Slow Food Movement. Today, Slow Food is active in fifty countries and has a worldwide membership of more than 80,000. It is dedicated to preserving endangered foodways, celebrating local food traditions, such as animal breeds and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, and promoting artisanal products. It advocates economic sustainability and bio diversity through educational events and public outreach programs.
C. Factory Farms
In 1920, 6.45 million farms operated in the United States. By 2004, the number of American farms had declined to about 2.1 million. The main reason for the decline in family farms has been the rise of the factory farm (also called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which dominate American agriculture today. Factory farms are usually owned by large corporations. They are designed to bring food to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Factory farms which concentrate on meat production are intensive operations with thousands (in some cases millions) of chickens, cows, pigs or turkeys, which are usually confined in cages or in buildings. These farms tend to make extensive use of antibiotics to prevent disease, and use chemicals and hormones to promote faster growth. Factory farms produce low cost raw foods, which have greatly decreased the amount of money consumers have expended on food during the last fifty years.
D. Organic Farms
In the United States, the organic farming movement was launched by Jerome Irving Rodale who began publishing the Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. Organic farming has been growing slowly ever since. In order to provide national uniformity, the Organic Foods Production Act (1990) set national standards for how organic food was to be produced, handled, and labeled. One of the keys to making a product organic is that land used must not have been subjected in the past three years to any of the substances on the prohibited list of products such as petrochemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. For organic plant foods, farmers are to utilize a number of soil and environmentally friendly sustainable methods of production. For the production of animal products, they must be raised in conditions that are open “free-range” natural habitats and excludes the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in healthy animals. Although organic farms now produce less than 2 percent of the U.S. food supply and utilize less than 1 percent of American farmland, the organic food market began to grow more than 15 to 20 percent each year during the 1990s and is expected to grow at a faster rate in the future.