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The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

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This book is an investigation into the human lives at the heart of the American grocery store. What does it take to run the American supermarket? How do products get to shelves? Who sets the price? And who suffers the consequences of increased convenience and efficiency? In this exposé, author Benjamin Lorr pulls back the curtain on this highly secretive industry. Combining deep sourcing and immersive reporting, Lorr leads a wild investigation in which we learn the secrets of Trader Joe's success from Trader Joe himself, why truckers call their job "sharecropping on wheels," what it takes for a product to earn certification labels like "organic" and "fair trade," the struggles entrepreneurs face as they fight for shelf space, including essential tips, tricks, and traps for any new food business, the truth behind the alarming slave trade in the shrimp industry and much more.

328 pages, Hardcover

First published September 8, 2020

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Benjamin Lorr

2 books126 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,389 reviews
July 22, 2022
In response to my initial thoughts, the author wrote a long comment about how the book wasn't at all preachy but given what he himself said, all the freebie reviews, and the paid ones on Netgalley and Kirkus, not to mention all the quotes on his own site, he wasn't able to disprove it. In fact all of them, the author included, just confirmed what I had said in my 'review'.

I deleted the author comment, my response etc. because I don't feel like getting into an argy-bargy. I don't have anything against the author or the book, only that I don't want to read that sort of thing, at least not right now.

Just because I don't want read all this woke stuff, doesn't mean anything. It's the genre du jour and lots of people will no doubt go for it. I know one thing for sure. I wouldn't dare write a review knowing that the author was monitoring me and absolutely going to jump on it if he didn't like what I said.

I got this thinking maybe it is food porn - what the cucumbers do when the lights are off - or maybe exactly how a supermarket is run. I know that display places are often purchased by the manufacturer for instance. I thought it would be interesting to know how such a high turnover, low-profit-per-item business is run.

But now I discover it is all about how the workers are on a par with doctors and nurses as essential frontline workers, the sad lives of the truckers and even sadder lives of the fishers of shrimp in the Far East who are semi-slaves apparently. It is an enthusiastically woke, activist book I think.

It might all be very worthy but I've have enough of causes and being lectured to. I've had enough of the books and websites of mea culpa I'm a wicked phobic/racist/non-vegan/non-locovore/over-privileged and whatever else it is that needs confessing and correcting in order to gain the approval of social media activists, which is all that counts these days.

I appreciate that there are some terrible social ills that go into many products and businesses but outside of news stories, I just don't want to spend my leisure time and money reading about them.

Not my sort of book. I think I'll try and sell it.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
769 reviews1,146 followers
November 5, 2020
This is Election Day 2020 for the US and I need to write this review but it's hard to think about eating food let alone concentrating on a review for a book about where our food comes from.

So you'll have to excuse me if my thoughts are a little scattered. 

Cat Kitten GIF - Cat Kitten Kitty GIFs
(Adorable cats to help alleviate Election Day anxiety)

Ok, let's go.

The title of this book is a little misleading. The Secret Life of Groceries. I thought this was going to be a book about groceries. You know, like the secret life of Twinkies, and how many spider legs are allowed to find their way into a box of Cheerios. Instead it's about grocery stores and food production and delivery. 

I was at first disappointed by this but the disappointment quickly turned into interest. There was a lot I didn't know and learned about in this book.

Here's a sample:

•The first grocery store in the world opened in the US in 1930.

•In the early years of the US, nearly 90 percent of the population worked to produce the nation’s food. Today, it's less than 3 percent.

•The average store has 32,000 individuated products and the largest have more than 120,000.

•10.7 billion tons of freight get moved around the US on trucks each year, "which breaks down to 54 million tons a day, or 350 pounds per man, woman, and child. Per day".

•The produce we buy in grocery stores is not as fresh as it appears. The typical juicy apple you eat was picked close to a year before that first crunchy bite.

Trish Kinsler Dot Com Apple GIF - TrishKinslerDotCom Apple GIFs

Author Benjamin Lorr takes us behind the scenes. He spends time working in Whole Foods, traveling across the country on a trailer truck carrying food, visiting a pig farm (be glad he did it for you), and talking to a man who spent years in forced servitude on a Thai fishing boat.  All this to explain the mechanics of how food gets to our table. 

He opens with the history of grocery stores and spends a lot of time on Trader Joe's and Whole Foods specifically. He talks about advertising and how stores decide which food and brands to sell. He informs us about the life of truck drivers who are responsible for carrying food across the country to our local grocery stores. He tells about the just-in-time scheduling stores are now using, where their employees have to be on call and rarely know ahead of time when they will be working or if they will be working at all. He talks about the slave labor used in production of seafood.

None of this is pretty. It makes you wish you could live off the land, producing all your food yourself.

I was absolutely horrified reading about the slave labor in Southeast Asia where most of the US' shrimp (and othr seafood) comes from. It is ghastly. Both for the human beings forced into intolerable conditions and for the shrimp, especially those that are now being farmed. 

Next time you bite into a shrimp, know that it was most likely grown in a slurry of its own and others' feces. If it's female, one of its eyes was cut out to speed up puberty. It's not known why losing an eye makes shrimp reproduce sooner, but we know it does and so shrimp farmers snip out one eyeball. Picture those scissors and that eyeball next time you think about ordering a plate of shrimp. 

Banana Cut GIF - Banana Cut GIFs

It's not just shrimp production that relies on humans forced into labor. Mr. Lorr doesn't go into detail on others but informs us that much of our coffee, chocolate, sugar, palm oil, and cattle are also the result of unspeakable suffering on the part of other human beings, children included. 

I often buy fair trade coffee and chocolate and avoid palm oil in products as much as possible (when you start reading labels, you quickly learn it's in freaking everything). And I'm vegan so I don't have to worry about the cattle, poultry or seafood. Still, I cannot know for certain that the fair trade I buy is actually fair trade, when companies have learned to go through third parties so they can deny knowing about trafficked human beings producing it.

I can make myself feel better by choosing carefully what I buy.... but it's not enough. Until we stop demanding ever lower prices and an ever more abundant supply of food at all times of the year, nothing will change.

The book is not all bleak. It is interesting as well. It gives you even more appreciation and compassion for the people who are, whether voluntarily or not, responsible for bringing food to your plate.

And as it's Election Day, I hope America votes Biden/Harris. Otherwise, we will see corporations treat their employees worse and worse, as they are given ever more freedom to misuse and underpay their employees. (And that's just in the United States. No matter who wins, I unfortunately don't see much changing for the plight of overseas laborers in developing countries anytime soon.)

If you appreciate the food you eat, you should want everyone in the supply chain to be treated fairly and to make a living wage. If you don't want that, you're a shit human being. There, I said it.

Kittens Oh Look GIF - Kittens OhLook MoreKittys GIFs
Profile Image for Chad.
7,478 reviews857 followers
November 9, 2020
This book is equal parts fascinating and depressing. It delves into the supply chain of the grocery store from all angles. The book begins with the story of the founder of Trader Joe's. It's very exciting. Then the author lives with a truck driver for a while and things get very depressing. He speaks about how they are indentured servants, the trucking companies preying upon the lowest rung of American society. We also get insight on how new food products enter the market and how incredibly hard it is. He works at the fish counter in Whole Foods for several months. The book ends with the Thai shrimping industry and how fisherman are slaves trapped at sea for years. So it's not a feel good book. Unfortunately, Lorr doesn't suggest any solutions to stop these awful practices. So you are left with this feeling of needing to start your own farm so you don't contribute to the exploitation of these people.

Received a review copy from Avery and Edelweiss. All thoughts are my own and in no way influenced by the aforementioned.
Profile Image for Matthew Jordan.
71 reviews48 followers
April 8, 2021
The main takeaway I got from this book was "this author has a degree in creative writing—maybe an MFA—and wants me to know it." I started the book hoping for a 5 hour romp through grocery supply chains, vegetable farming, how food gets canned, the economics of grocery stores, and the labour conditions of people who work in grocery. Instead, the book was basically three drawn-out first-person narratives: "I did a bunch of research on Trader Joes"; "I followed around a trucker and a food entrepreneur for a while"; and "I hung out with abused migrant workers in Thailand." Any of those could have made for an awesome story, but it felt like the author himself was WAY too present in the narrative. If you're gonna write a memoir, that's cool, but title it "The Secret Life of Groceries: Anecdotes From My Personal Experiences Studying Supermarkets."

I nevertheless did learn quite a bit (did you know that when you buy an apple at a grocery store, it might have been picked A YEAR prior??). It's a ridiculously interesting topic, and I'm probably gonna read more about grocery stories, because I have many, many unanswered questions.
Profile Image for Erikka.
1,791 reviews
June 3, 2020
Equal parts depressing and inspiring, this is a thorough and well-written journey into the world of the grocery supply chain in the spirit of Upton Sinclair and the great muckrakers of old. Along the journey, you'll meet grocery employees and managers, truckers, product creators, and the people at the bottom of the chain that keep your food at the prices you expect. I can tell you, you won't like that chapter one bit. Honestly, a good deal of this book will upset you. And it should. But it will also inform you and allow you to make your own decisions of where to put your money and how to view your grocery shopping experience. I do feel like the author got a bit rambly or over detailed in parts, but he made up for it with some truly funny moments. I think that's about the only negative I can think of: the few times I said "I get it. Get on with it already." But it was a genuinely good book.

Also, I won't believe you if you say you don't want to eat some Slawsa by the end. We all want Slawsa.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,906 reviews1,235 followers
April 24, 2021
As I have previously mentioned, I love reading books about the systems at work in our world that we barely ever think about. Grocery stores are one such system. The supply chain for things like grocery stores has been slightly more in the news lately, given disruptions caused by the pandemic (not to mention a ship blocking the Suez Canal for days). Yet the news can only ever give a cursory explanation of the complexity of the supply chain. Benjamin Lorr dives deep in The Secret Life of Groceries. This book is neither superficial nor shallow: it is clearly a labour of intense fascination and dedication. There’s so much happening here that I don’t even know where to begin.

Lorr divides the book into 6 lengthy parts rather than chapters, but it works. First he traces the history of supermarkets—how we got from general stores to the behemoth stores in which we shop today. Then he discusses transportation, in particular the transport trucking industry in the continental United States (and Canada). Part 3 covers food entrepreneurs and what it takes to break out onto store shelves. From there, Lorr returns to the store, this time to examine how stores manage their employees, resources, and customers. Next, he examines how regulations around the grocery and food industries aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Finally, he indulges those who crave a really deep dive down the supply chain, all the way to the “bottom”—a world of slave labour, unsafe and unethical practices, and disruptive NGOs. Within each part, Lorr frames his investigations through the lens of personal stories: Part 1 discusses Joe Coloumbe, founder of Trader Joe’s; Part 2 follows Lynne Ryles, a transport trucker who allowed Lorr to ride along in her cab for several days; etc. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve met a whole bunch of people whose lives are probably very different from yours.

I picked up some great trivia from this book. For example, Sylvan Goldman introduced shopping carts in 1937, but initially he had to hire people to push them around the store so customers would understand their utility. This is just one way that Lorr helps us understand how different the world used to be, and that���s what I come to books like this for. I want authors to remind me that what I take for granted—hopping in my car to go to a big box supermarket, buying pre-packaged food, maybe even doing it all online these days—is new. In the 1950s and 1960s, supermarkets existed but were not like what we have now, and if you go back even earlier, they were seen as pipe dreams that could never work—until someone made them work.

Lorr is careful not to lionize these visionaries nor condemn them, a balance
I appreciate. I think, depending on the writer, this story could become a validation of the fictional American Dream: look at these brilliant men who invented modern grocery shopping! Alternatively, the story could be one of complete despair and despondency over capitalism. Both these stories manifest within The Secret Life of Groceries, and it’s Lorr’s ability not to succumb to either side but instead find a middle path that makes this book so compelling.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly anti-capitalist, and I appreciate how angry this book got me at points. Whether it’s the indenturing of truck drivers or the enslavement of Burmese refugees, there’s a lot to get mad about in the secret life of our groceries. But as Lorr remarks in the conclusion, there is something very performative about the way we white folx in the West handle learning about such exploitation. We love to see labels proclaiming food is ethically sourced; we love to perform outrage and dispatch inspectors. Yet how much actually changes? I appreciate rather than bringing us outrage Lorr chronicles those, like P’Aon, who are taking action.

Lorr worked hard on this book, and it shows. He embeds himself in various situations, and he has Done the Research. Though not a thick book by any means, it is meticulous, detailed, and thoughtful. There were times when Lorr’s writing style didn’t work for me—it struck me as that “trying too hard” kind of style that some journalists develop because they are caught in the awkward land between novel-style prose and plain English. Lorr luxuriates in his descriptions a little too much for a non-fiction book, in my opinion. But I can deal with that when he’s bringing me such interesting information!

The Secret Life of Groceries is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in what happens behind the scenes of where you buy your food. You might have noticed I’ve been judicious in my word choice—I don’t want to overhype this book, to describe it as “mind-blowing” or “life-changing,” because I don’t think it is those things, but I think you can easily come up for air after submerging yourself in this book and want to think it’s those things. That’s the kind of book this is: seductive in its exposition, enlightening in its selection of facts, always ready to make you ask for more.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Stephen.
1 review4 followers
September 10, 2020
This book is REALLY freaking good. The author spent 5 years reporting this - going to Thailand to talk to former slaves, working the seafood counter at Whole Foods, and riding in a truck with a long-haul trucker.

It's fascinating to learn about the full scope of the grocery industry, but also the book is simply a delight to read - all the idiosyncratic characters and weirdos, all the hustling entrepreneurs, all the heartbreaking stories.

Most of all, Lorr's just an incredible writer - sentence-for-sentence this is as good as almost any book I've read.

Full disclosure the author is a friend of mine but THAT DOESN'T CHANGE THE MERIT OF THIS INCREDIBLE BOOK!
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,862 reviews1,897 followers
May 17, 2021
16 MAY 2021 UPDATE On sale today for $1.99! The *perfect* price for it.

Many thanks to Edelweiss+ and Avery for my DRC of this book

In a five-year odyssey through the world created to feed American consumers, Author Lorr sees the behind-the-scenes costs of the cornucopia you visited weekly if not daily....and now likely use the internet to have delivered to you. The appalling conditions of Asian slave laborers, the crushing debts of US truckers, and the battle to prevent consumers from knowing the true cost of cheap food come flying at you as fast as you can turn the pages. Those of us holed up in isolation need to read about those who have no choice but to risk plague to keep us from the risks of stepping outside. Given how many discovered the sheer creative joy of manipulating our food to taste even better might've slightly reduced our own carbon footprints...but others took up our slack. My dote Mary Roach (Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars) said it best in her blurb:
The modern shopper wants groceries that are ethical, sustainable, humane, affordable, fresh, and convenient. But as Lorr discovers, the costs of our demands are recouped from the bottom of the food chain: debt-ruined truckers, foreign slave labor, and Whole Foods workers in our own communities — the people whose lives Lorr shared (and sometimes lived) for weeks or months. Does it sound grim? It’s not! The Secret Life of Groceries is a terrific read. The stories flow, and the hard truths are seasoned with wit and hope.
Profile Image for Ryan Creed.
98 reviews
November 13, 2020
Reading this was like standing in a checkout line behind a person who is fruitlessly searching through their coin purse for exact change.
Profile Image for Natali.
423 reviews301 followers
January 10, 2021
I am one of the Whole Foods shopping, Michael Pollan-reading moms that this book is written for. The Bowery Whole Foods was my home market when I lived in Manhattan. I am the kind that will stop buying palm oil full stop if I learn that it destroys the planet but this book shows me that those things really are not any kind of fix for what ails the economy of food. I found this book really beautifully done but devastating too.

The author doesn’t give you a way to shop around your Western guilt. Becoming a vegan or local-foods-only buyer is not really the solution. It is far more complicated and he illustrates this beautifully with his ethnography. He wants us to look straight into the looking glass of consumerism, not with any solution. Just to see what it REALLY costs.

Frozen shrimp costs you $3 because it has cost someone else their freedom. Your whims on Amazon are trucked to you at the expense of someone else’s livelihood. There are no simple answers. This part really stuck with me, as if I could have written it:

“For years, whenever given the choice, I just tossed the organic fair-trade version into the cart. I had read my Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Kept up on my New York Times exposés. I knew the cost of industrial food. Paying extra to make the world a slightly better place seemed like the actual literal least I could do as a white American male atop the food chain in a financial, social, and caloric sense. It was an opportunity. A sign of my larger sentience and connection to the world. And so without even thinking, I ponied up. Every time. Ethics was habit. But the habit always nagged at me. I had watched organics and fair trade explode into billion-dollar industries. But it was hard to say the world was becoming a better place for the marginal spending. In fact, it felt like it was becoming a more insulated one. I kept thinking of the medieval practice of simony, where the wealthy could pay money to be released from their sins. The grocery store felt like it was becoming a smug secular update. The seals and certifications acting like some sort of moral shield, allowing those of us with disposable income to pay extra for our salvation, and forcing everyone else to deal with the fact that on top of being poor, they were tacitly agreeing to harm the earth, pollute their children via their lunch boxes, and exploit their fellow man each time they made a purchase. And so to better understand, I decided to drill down into the world of ethical labeling.”

That is exactly how I feel when I am in a market and we should all be forced to look into the horrible reality of our food chain. The truth is that we have better food and more variety at cheaper prices than ever before but there is a real human cost to that. Not humans that we will ever touch or feel or know but they are out there, sacrificing their lives to our whims and it is wrong.

The author says nothing about the environmental costs of the global food economy. That could be a whole other book. This is just about the actual humanity, or inhumanity, of our food chain.

The grocery industry trains us to pay less for food at the expense of other people. How can we ever reverse this? You won’t finish this book feeling good about any possible solutions but it will open your eyes towards what you choose, touch, buy, and consume and for that reason alone, we should all read this book.
Profile Image for Jenny.
119 reviews6 followers
May 22, 2021
We read this for book club. An interesting, quick read that begins to explain the ins and outs of the grocery industry.

Overall, Lorr writes from an educated, upper middle class perspective, and seems somehow surprised to find out there is no ethical consumption in capitalism, er in grocery buying. This will not be earth shattering to most. Lorr muses about America’s conflation of identity with consumer choices, and bemoans our lack of meaningful action to address the oppression of those who bear the brunt of our abundant supermarket shelves. But it’s clear - Lorr narrates through the lens of the privileged do-gooder consumer (though he does work the seafood counter of the Bowery Whole Foods for two months, so you know, solidarity) wringing their hands. Lorr is writing this book for an audience who enjoys grocery shopping because they never have to worry about the total they ring up at the cash register.

I found the brief history of the development of America’s supermarkets fascinating, enjoyed learning about Trader Joe’s unique marketing approach, the grueling nature of the trucking industry, and learning how products make it to market. Learning about slave labor in the Thai shrimping industry was horrifying, and knowing that trafficked labor is responsive for our coffee and chocolate as well is heavy, too.

I thought Lorr could have more deeply explored any of these topics.

Mysteriously missing from this book was any conversation about the migrant labor in the United States, laborers who are responsible for our own produce supply, often trafficked and forced to work in compulsory situations (check out Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies though). No discussion of food deserts, or access to grocery stores with healthy food - which is a huge issue - and how corporate supermarket chains decide NOT to open stores in low-income (and because America is segregated, often BIPOC) neighborhoods. One brief mention in passing of how subsidies influence the crops grown in the U.S., but no exploration of how this influences the food available on our shelves, or the ubiquitous corn syrup in processed foods. No conversation about poverty or hunger in the United States, and the role the supermarkets play in facilitating the use of SNAP and WIC food support benefits. No discussion of the rise of convenience foods and the relationship to dual income households. And oddly, no exploration of food waste, a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, no acknowledgment of the local foods movement, and what that means for a more ethical supply chain.
Profile Image for Paige.
81 reviews3 followers
April 7, 2021
There is a fair amount of interesting, legitimately surprising information in this book. There were even sections that I couldn't tear myself away from. This book is good when it is sticking to investigation and new facts. However, the author's tone and writing style felt incredibly unsuited to non-fiction, and often overshadowed and interrupted the parts I found most interesting. It's like the writing is trying entirely too hard. The section about the Thai shrimp industry is as interesting as it is horrifying but the rest of the book is pretty disjointed from it, and even that section trails off rather messily. The writing is bizarrely exaggerated and dramatic in places, with entire paragraphs extrapolating on some deeper meaning to grocery and buying habits that sound kind of profound without really saying anything, and ultimately are reading way too much into things. There is a lot of artistic imagery that has no clear value to what is being described. At one point I wished someone had confiscated the author's thesaurus.
Just one example:
"Our society is awash with founders, all listening to the same leadership podcasts, doing the same kettlebell lunges to improve grip and leg strength at the same time, then dissolving identical Tim Ferriss–approved muscle-building complexes into their post-workout shakes to transform their previously similar mesomorph bodies into something even more metabolically equivalent. All while making parallel grandiose-style projections about their own app, disruption, or innovation whereby their personal self-interest miraculously aligns with the interest of society writ large and places them as CEO/founder/servant-leader on the very prow of the vessel of civilization. It is lunacy."

What in the hell is this yammering on about? What I also could not stand was how the author talked about people he was interviewing. His descriptions of them were condescending, weird and kind of voyeuristic, like he was observing an animal in a zoo, not a human he could have a conversation with. The way he describes the trucker, Lynne, is insufferable. He describes her cough as "disgusting" and "a tumbling of moss and rotten sponge," along with a leery, uncharitable description of her physical appearance; he describes her hours-long conversations in the truck as "assaultive" and muses getting ear plugs. This is a woman who he has imposed himself upon, taking up her personal space, ostensibly for his own benefit to write a book, and he has the audacity to act like it's an inconvenience to him. He describes another woman, Julie, who is trying to get her food product into stores, like this: "Perhaps she is good-natured without being good-humored. Perhaps she is good-humored without having a good sense of humor. Regardless, the woman loves to laugh, but not always in a way that allows you to laugh along with her. It is a laughter at her own foibles, where you are kind of worried for her, or a laughter at her own effort levels and accomplishments, where you are impressed but not in any funny way, or a laughter at her own sense of surprise that things are working out, as if any other form of acknowledgment would be a jinx." This is weirdly judgmental. He describes P'Aon, a woman who breaks slave laborers out of their compounds, like this: "But it is a kindness that feels a little shy and awkward. Like maybe you would have to look out for P’Aon at a busy event, check in on her to make sure she is okay, because maybe P’Aon is someone who could become overwhelmed and needs protection." This is an infantilizing way to describe woman in her late 30s, who founded an NGO and routinely gets death threats. Meanwhile, the survivor of forced labor on a fishing boat, who endured years of beatings and lost his goddamn hand, "exudes negative charisma."

The author's description of the in-person research he did, whether it's sitting with Lynne in her truck or working at Whole Foods, always comes off as a self-absorbed narrative, like they're undertaken less for learning vital information and more as a brag that he did this thing. He makes random assumptions about people's thoughts or motives, like when he asserts Lynne talks to herself in her truck as "a diatribe against loneliness" and that the truckers at the truck stop are "wandering aimless, trying to process a landscape not moving at fifty-seven miles per hour." I don't know, dude, aren't you ostensibly doing these things to TALK to people in this industry? Couldn't you, like, ask them why they do things instead of projecting your inner monologue onto them? The book ends with a very unclear conclusion, and I finished it unsure what I was supposed to take away from it. There are some bland platitudes that are supposed to say something profound about society but don't: "This is to say, the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve." What? Who is "we"? Just the author and the readers he believes are his target audiences? It's clear the author is not thinking the debt-burdened truckers, the horrifically exploited fishermen, or the Whole Foods fish counter employee are meant to be included in this "we" he's talking about, since they certainly don't "deserve" this food system.

Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,214 reviews551 followers
January 18, 2021
This is not rated because I didn't read more than 1/2.

It's more about the author's views re "product" than it is the title.

It's coastal California in great majority of determinations.

It's like looking at "history" with only the negatives numbered and less positives than you could count on one hand. Which is extremely "odd" considering the stats given in the first chapters about food costs and distribution in the USA.

And there you go too. This is more about quality and a couple of specific business forms (Trader Joe and Whole Foods "history") than it is about USA grocery stores in general. Especially those nearly anyplace vaguely ON the continent and more than 50 miles from an ocean or salted sea.

It is a miracle. Especially since you can consider that within 50 years, it has gone from over 30% to just 3% of personal incomes used for food.

There is a disturbing habit in this, as well. In the form, he will often put in longer footnotes than the print of the page. And most usually it has some Benjamin slant or is based on some "I think" story associated with the subject.

Very hard to read. Scattered in subject matter to the point of it not seeming a whole. If the flow of words was not so poor, I would have continued.

I do agree with him on a several points. The amount of packaging at Trader Joe's for portion sizes is over the top. And also, that taste little matters in many categories of "product" - and takes a second place to "how it looks in appeal". That's not only the few store chains he studied, btw.

This is far more about supply chains (minus most of the trucking that matters so intrinsically within the USA) than it is about grocery stores themselves. I don't think it was titled correctly and it was not at all what I had hoped it would be. Mom and Pop stores DO still exist. Many in smaller cities and towns. Some even in the East areas where you wouldn't imagine they could survive.

If I had finished this, I would most probably never given it more than a 2. It's a huge topic and some aspects not hardly approached.
Profile Image for Rolin.
139 reviews6 followers
February 1, 2023
Every so often, you read something and it means that you can't look at some thing the same way ever again. Reading this book, I cannot look at grocery stores the same way again. The bar codes. The specialty condiments. Joe, of Trader Joe's. The pallets by the loading docks. The shrimp.

Lorr expertly unravels the material conditions and the guiding ideologies that have led to the miracle of today's grocery chain. Avocado oil is able to enter the supply chain through a mix of production changes, branding, and the desperate need to get that sweet market share. Sublime might seem like hyperbole but it is fitting in its original sense of the word: grocery stores are an absolute beauty of the modern economy powered by the terrifying churn of labor and nature. The writing is stunning — corrugated cardboard upheld by the magic of cathedral vaults a thousand times over, the burning ammonia of chicken shit on exposed skin — horror and marvel are infused in the banal.

This is a masterclass investigation into the commodification process. How do we alienate things from their original natures to become an excel cel, a KPI, an extension of consumer identity. The lingering question is what do we do in the wreckage and the wonders. What do we do with the overwhelming survivor's guilt. We can tritely say "there's no ethical consumption under capitalism,"or boycott shrimp or just not be the asshole to the retail workers. Lorr's answer is uneasy but I think the right one. The grocery store is just one facet into the way we've organized how we produce and consume. Its features may feel especially visceral but should not be confused to be unique. The path forward is built on acts of resistance, large and small, to do nothing less than reimagine the world.
Profile Image for Steve.
938 reviews41 followers
December 15, 2020
Superb reporting, superb writing, thoughtful, philosophical, well-researched, funny in spots, and a bit hallucinogenic. Not a simple survey or history of grocery stores, far deeper than that,and no attempt to be encyclopedic. You will not see a grocery store the same way again. And maybe you won’t quite see life the same way again.

This is the review that made me want to read the book: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/bo...
Profile Image for Julie.
101 reviews4 followers
October 29, 2020
I'm a serious geek for all things supply chain (I have a PhD in the field and have taught it for 13+ years), so ...

I just finished this last night and it’s by far one of the best non-fiction non-textbook pieces that I’ve read on SCM decisions and the human, legal, financial, and other issues that drive them.

I’ve read Where Underpants Come from: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China and The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade and all of Eliyahu M. Goldratt's books, of course, as well as SCM books on the auto industry, beer, and many other topics.

This particular book is really beautifully done and touches everything from the retail developments that shaped SCM (e.g. the introduction of the cardboard box leading to individual packaging, leading to brands and shelves and self-service shopping instead of the deli-counter-style shopping that preceded our modern consumer model), the drivers of the trucks, the distribution centers, the product buyers and their different roles of specialty and commodity, new product developers, the role of contract-based packagers, private labels, the economies of scale of new ingredient introduction, factory farms, slave labor, the role of certifications like fair trade etc. Most aspects are told partially through historical statistics and events and facts and partially through the stories of real people, making it both informative and compelling. I actually cheered out loud when Taiichi Ohno made a cameo.

Much of it can easily be understood to apply to any consumer service or good, some is very unique to foods. It has funny bits and lots of personal stories so it’s engaging and interesting.

I have already recommended it to every student in my courses this semester and plan to make it an optional reading for future semesters.
December 16, 2020
Benjamin Lord presents a scathing expose on your local grocery stores. The food that is put on your shelves may not be as wholesome as you may think. At least I didn't think so.

The author first describes the cleaning out of the seafood counter. First you must remove all the fish from the counter. Once this is done, all the ice is shoveled out. The more you shovel the more smelly it becomes. Under all all the ice are dead remains of fish that has settled to the bottom of the counter over the past couple weeks or months. Lastly the case is sanitized with industrial cleaner.

The author tells us how grocery stores cut costs and increases efficiency by-

.Paying the workers at grocery stores minimum wages and little benefits

Using the truck drivers as slaves to their trucks.

Fishing boats in Thailand and India that use slave labor on their ships

Certifying companies that do little to certify the food industry but charge a big fee to look the other way at unethical behavior.

I found this book very enlightening.
Profile Image for Alicia.
5,732 reviews108 followers
January 22, 2021
I had been waiting for quite a while in the queue at the public library for the copy because I saw it recommended on a booklist and I thought, this is right up my alley of interest and piques by curiosity.

Unfortunately, my reading was defeated fairly early on. I felt condescended to and unintelligent in sharing the information that he wanted to share. His voice in writing the book grated on me. Alongside that, it was technical in a way that didn't allow me to push my boundaries of understanding nor was his writing style captivating or approachable.

I really, really wanted to like it but it wasn't what I expected in content or delivery.
Profile Image for Katie/Doing Dewey.
1,060 reviews204 followers
May 6, 2021
This book on the supply chain in the US was actually quite gripping. Sometimes depressing too, but this topic impacts our lives so intimately that I loved learning more. This book was about how we get our groceries in the US. It covers everything from the rise of Trader Joe's to the life of a trucker (grim), from what it takes to get your product on supermarket shelves to slave labor employed in the shrimp fishing industry (even more grim). I appreciated that there were some lighter topics in here. It made it easier to enjoy this book, while also learning about some of the horrifying realities that currently support the convenience of the modern grocery store.

I'll start by talking about the lighter topics. The history of Trader Joe's and Joe himself were eclectic and entertaining. His ability to see trends coming was incredible. His unique approach to learning a lot about specific markets and stocking items that were a good profit per square inch appealed to me. It felt like a smart, quantitative approach to the problem of stocking a grocery store. This was a sharp contrast to many stores that make their money in large part by charging stocking fees. I found it disappointing to learn that the items in a store aren't primarily driven by consumer demand. Instead, it seems manufacturers are grocery stores' true customer, making them money by paying for shelf space and promotions. A short detour into the story of a start-up entrepreneur trying to get her product onto shelves was another enjoyable look at this ecosystem. It still revealed some depressing inequities though.

Even more grim were the sections on the use of slave labor and the way truckers essentially become victims of a pyramid scheme/MLM style arrangement. It seems truckers pay for insurance, repairs, and gas for their trucks at the same time they're renting to own. As a result, they make almost no money, while the companies get rich. Female truck drivers also live with a culture of rampant sexual harassment. I found these sections even more depressing because there seems to be little direct pressure consumers can apply to solve this problem. I think lobbying our lawmakers is really the only way to go. Nevertheless, I was glad to learn more about where my groceries come from, even when I didn't like the answers. Throughout, the author did a great job weaving together personal stories and startling statistics. I really enjoyed this work of investigative journalism.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey
Profile Image for aza.
201 reviews20 followers
March 16, 2022
Basically wow. Everything in this book makes sense yet I hadn't thought about any of it before

But that's part of the premise of modern day groceries. We just expect to find whatever we're looking for at the store. Lorr speaks with Joe Coulombe, aka The Trader Joe and discusses how people go to the grocery store to help them define themselves by the foods they eat, the foods they avoid, reading labels and finding their place in the grocery world.

I've read about our relationship to food, such as advertisements in junk food, or in the struggle to put groceries in food deserts. But this book isn't about that. It's about the history of grocery, about the people and ideas that got us from then to now, what's been changing recently with new technology and where we're currently headed. Lorr also enters the grocery world, spending time in a big rig hauling food product, seeing warehouses, fisheries, getting on boats, and working at Whole Foods.

As a public, we've heard about some of the conditions of the workers at the bottom of the foodchain, but Lorr speaks of the structure behind labor trafficking and the ways that grocery chains such as Whole Foods handle these allegations.

We learn about those who attempt to sell their product in stores, their abysmal survival rates in retail, and the relationship these sellers have with the production of their product (not much), with buyers, and with the chains they have product in.

I loved learning from the production manager that they tend to use an ingredient (such as avocado oil) more and more because once they are importing it, they figure might as well make more products with that ingredient, and that's how you get fads. Definitely this is why my husband and I have been eating so many chickpea products lately

When reading this, you learn a lot about the grocery store world. What I learned was terrible, infuriating, saddening, yet so obvious. It's an important thing to think about, yet when you go to the store it's not something you feel like you need to consider. Everything is just so conveniently there for you to pick up and make dinner with. Really makes you think
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,698 reviews1,227 followers
May 11, 2022

I disliked the first chapter - about the life and business model of Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe's - so much that I almost quit. Fortunately subsequent chapters were more interesting, although Lorr's overly florid style was grating:

"If we want to think about the introduction of the supermarket as a birth, the cafeteria was foreplay."

"All around Joe, men and women were meeting for drinks, pink-and-white leis slung around their necks like frothy Elizabethan collars, their plastic coconuts of flaming run threading a weird cultural needle between escape and irony, refuge and sincerity."

"A disgusting cough to listen to, wet and moldy, a tumbling of moss and rotten sponge."

"This is the hive mind of my condiment drawer, a gibbering id of anxiety and acquisition, responsible for all those decaying bottles in my fridge."
Profile Image for Bouke.
166 reviews30 followers
September 12, 2020
This book dives into the craziness that goes into the background to make supermarkets 'work'. At first it's kind of weird and funny but the book gets very dark, detailing the human suffering that gets inflicted to make your shrimp slightly cheaper.
Profile Image for britt_brooke.
1,264 reviews94 followers
May 12, 2021
There’s some great info here, but the organization/style doesn’t flow well. And, ok, I get that after the brief history and such, Lorr uses specific stories to illustrate broader points. Not a bad thing necessarily, but he goes on and on AND ON to the point of utter boredom. I’m sorry Slawsa lady and Tai fisher, but damn. The truck driver bit was great, though. This is not my only takeaway, but did you know many of them travel with a dog?
35 reviews9 followers
October 24, 2020
I picked up this book somewhat begrudgingly. It was a non-fiction book on an Important Topic, and I felt I should read it given the subject matter and that I patronize grocery stores more than any other business. And wow, was I surprised! It was much more of an enjoyable read than I anticipated. Lorr’s writing is funny, personal, and informative. He weaves in the research and data into people’s personal stories, which I enjoyed. Normally, I find footnotes annoying and tedious. But even his footnotes I looked forward to reading. That isn’t to say it was FUN to read and learn about the dark side behind the grocery store supply chain. You will learn sad, depressing things about how the race to the lowest prices on the shelves impacts the livelihoods and health of our fellow humans working hard to bring you that food.

This book was somewhat validating for me. I shop 80-90% at a local grocery store (and note that I can also afford to), and it reinforces my decision to shop as little as possible at Whole Foods and Big Grocery. I also realize that my decision to shop there and publicize it is more about what I hope to demonstrate about my taste and values to everyone else and less about what actually constitutes my own taste and values.

Below, a few passages that resonated with me.

One of the first things you realize working retail grocery is that people, in general, are hideous and insane, but their depravity almost miraculously balances out the ledge of the day so that aside from bruised feelings and egos, which never really balance, the store itself makes out just fine. You’ll have a tiny little man who can barely see above the counter berating you to cut a slab of the $32.99 per pound King Salmon into progressively smaller and smaller pieces as if to prove some volumetric version of Achimedes’s paradox until you are left with reams of unsalable King Salmon that he promptly walks away from because you fucked it all up and that isn’t what he asked for at all. And then minutes later an old woman with a blue beret and a lakeshore lockjaw accent will eye that very mincemeat and declare she’ll take it. When you double-check to make sure she realizes she is almost about to buy a pound of wild King Salmon ribbons at $32.99 per pound, she’ll note curtly that while she does have children there is nothing she adores more than her pet turtles and no food is too dear for them. This actually happened, by the way, but do not let its veracity get in the way of the lesson: a grocery store is a finely tuned instrument to serve human whim, and the diversity of human whim often allows it to do double duty, serving one through the act of serving another. pg. 167

Sadly for management, humans tend to react different than automobile parts when ripped from one place to another according to algorithmic whim; happily for management, norms are such that low-wage workers can be replaced almost as easily as automobile parts if they company much more than the metal. pg. 179

At the grocery store we not only buy food to taste but also to demonstrate taste. Which is to say, our discernment. And in this way, it is like all-American consumption, deeply attached to our sense of self. We buy things to stake claims, to demonstrate autonomy, and to assert our unique experience. Sociologist Colin Campbell traces this ethic back to the Romantic poets who glorified self-discovery, instructing the writer to “express what he thinks and feels” and to “reveal the depths of the human soul.” And our tastes do just that. We express them; they reveal us.

Back in the grocery store, this gets delightfully complicated because taste also exits in a third dimension: the socially determined one. That is to say, in addition to the buds in our mouth and our outwardly exhibited discernment, we can speak about what makes someone have good taste versus bad taste. Which has nothing to do with an individual “expression of their depths” but exists insofar as their expression matches social judgement... And thus taste—and consumption itself—is bound up in a paradox of sorts: freedom to express the unique self, but requiring approval from the greater conforming community. pgs. 202-203
Profile Image for Adam.
193 reviews4 followers
November 7, 2022
Some very interesting content here: an eye-opening history of Trader Joe's, a few days spent with a truck driver being shamelessly exploited, a truly shocking interview with a Myanmarese man who spent years enslaved on a fishing boat providing feed for shrimp farms. But it doesn't quite hang together as a book. I was also a bit turned off by the author's sometimes arch and chatty style. There is a strong point of view, but it doesn't rise to the level of a thesis or overarching theme. I think he needs to decide if he's a muckraker, an economist or a social critic, and that it would work better if he stopped trying to be clever and insightful, and focused more on being direct.
Profile Image for Joy.
80 reviews12 followers
January 19, 2021
Couldn’t get into it, the voice was dripping with testosterone and it put me off.
Profile Image for Monica Willyard Moen.
1,281 reviews24 followers
August 12, 2021
I wanted and expected to like this book. I anticipated reading it while it waited on my phone until I made some time to read it. So I was pretty disappointed to discover how much I didn’t like it.

I read the book with an assumption in mind that perhaps I should not have made. I assumed that the author was writing the book to affect some sort of change within our grocery or food chain system and that he wanted us to take an action. I generally function with the mindset that if you are going to tell me about a problem, I would like you to tell me about ideas you have for solving the problem as well. Even if you can’t affect the changes yourself, I want to know what you think needs to be done in both the long and short term to address the problem. Otherwise, you are complaining rather than explaining.

For the most part, the author focused all of the chapters on explaining what’s going wrong or why people are unhappy with our entire supply chain for grocery shopping. He wrote compellingly about gross, disgusting things that happened in our grocery stores, and I dare you to buy and eat fish from one of the stores right after reading his book.He didn’t offer much in the way of remedy suggestions or offer any tips consumers might use to change the ecosystem in a positive way. The impression that I walked away with could be summed up as,“Stay away from the grocery store! Don’t eat anything! It’s dirty and yucky! No one is safe! “ The book felt depressing in an apocalyptic way.

You might be wondering if I am capable of figuring out ideas of my own. Yes, I am. I am trying to convey an attitude here that makes me very uncomfortable because it feels like a book version of the psychological game called “aided awful. “ everything in this book may be gospel truth. However, the negativity makes me feel more like I’m watching a train wreck rather than being a call for everyone to come and lend a hand with fixing something important.

Finally, the profanity and sarcasm or offputting to me. The sarcasm may have been his way of trying to address something that really upset him, but it just sounded whiny on top of the very serious and very negative content in the book. I sometimes find sarcasm to be very funny, so I think my issue with it here is just the setting and the level of negativity.
Profile Image for Anna Banana.
58 reviews4 followers
May 25, 2021
Elements of this book are truly fascinating. I enjoyed learning about the history and business model of Trader Joe's and about the supply chain of Thai seafood.

The rest? The author is too present in the narrative. A narrative which lacks humility and context. He is not the only writer besides Upton Sinclair and Eric Schlosser to investigate the supply chain of food, or any of the other topics (e.g., many other books exist on trucking; John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers comes to mind).

This book would have been more successful with a more informational narrative voice and a streamlining of the topics covered.

Is this meant to be an exploration of the supply chain of groceries? If so, the structures and systems need more analysis. These discussions were superficial at best, and often overtaken by the author's own reactions and experiences. A more in-depth discussion was achieved to some extent during the chapter on truck driving. Yet, what about the role of other regulations and market patterns on the challenges that truck drivers face? Instead, we hear an excessively in-depth description of the author's assessment of truck drivers' physiques, and how the author felt after driving in a truck for a stint.

Is this supposed to describe the business models of grocery stores? If so, then the reader needs more examples than just Trader Joe's and a continuation of the (very interesting) history of the grocery store after Aldi took over Trader Joe's. Instead, we hear about what kind of marketing strategy would work on the author. This is entertaining, but takes up too much space that could be devoted to more history and examples.

As someone who is interested in supply chain issues and business models of grocery stores, this book just grazed the surface of information I desperately want to learn more about. I wish this had been marketed accurately. Namely, a collection of (personal) essays related to grocery stores and the supply chain.

I will be reading "Made in China" next to continue my Supply Chain Reading Project.
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