What Price Food?
The Secret Life of Groceries

What Price Food?

Journalist Benjamin Lott examines corrupt practices, exploitation and power in the food industry.

Muckraker Benjamin Lorr – author of Hell-Bent, a critically acclaimed exploration of the Bikram yoga community that exposed guru Bikram Choudhury as a sexual predator – offers a fascinating exposé of a world people take for granted: food supply chains. He demonstrates how consumers are unknowingly complicit in unfair, inhuman and even criminal practices in the name of abundance and low prices.

Today’s Supermarket

Lorr begins in the 19th century, when food was all local and sold in season, when ripened. The 20th century brought the corrugated cardboard box, tin cans, branding and disposable packaging: a revolution in food choices for most consumers.

Food is the business of eating – grocery…that’s completely different; it’s the business of desire.Benjamin Lorr

Any food vendor trying to get a new product into stores faces fierce competition. Entrepreneurs sell their products to middlemen who don’t care about quality or taste. They care that a product’s shelf life, production facilities and commodity prices for its ingredients are consistent and reliable.

Middlemen, brokers who profit by operating between food vendors and stores, expect free test products and a fee for securing supermarket shelf space. They charge promotional fees, advertising costs and expenses for disposing of products that spoil or don’t sell. This affects 55% of suppliers’ costs, and it does nothing to promote their brands.

Joe Coulombe had a new idea: products that reflected shopper’s identities. His Trader Joe’s supermarket chain eschews wholesalers. It embraces “discontinuous” products that are available only intermittently. Coulombe focused on curated products: the cheapest, most flavorful and most distinctive. He created a private label for his products, and barred Coca-Cola and Bounty from his stores to cultivate customer discernment. Coulombe sold the Trader Joe’s to the European food giant ALDI in 1977.


Lorr notes that everything consumers enjoy comes to them by truck. With 10.7 billion tons of goods moving around the United States alone, trucks are the “circulatory system” of the GDP. However, the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1970s and 1980s set off a cost-cutting race, and that’s been very hard on drivers. 

Lorr cites truck driver Lynne Ryles, who works long hours and lives in her truck, working at the mercy of dispatchers, load planners, receivers and depots. On paper, Ryles earned almost $200,000 in one year. But leasing, gas, cleaning, insurance, maintenance and other charges left her with only $17,000.

I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Because I am locked into this contract…I can’t afford to believe anything else.Lynne Ryles, truck driver

Most carriers lock drivers into lease-to-own contracts. The “churn and burn” rate for drivers is between 95% to 112% over 10 years. Carriers like high turnover; they profit from lending cash to student drivers for compulsory driving courses.

Trucking means servitude, isolation and poverty. And, Lott points out, when automated trucks eventually replace drivers, millions will be out of work.

Ethical Labeling

Benjamin Lorr got a close look at some kinds of food production, even sneaking into a pig shed with a radical animal rights group to expose animal mistreatment. He witnessed these animals’ heartbreakingly short lives, but he didn’t find the stye a “hellscape.” Mass-production facilities for pigs and chickens (and their eggs) must abide by safety, cleanliness and animal care standards to stay solvent. Sick animals are not profitable. 

In the United States, the $50 billion for-profit food safety audit industry enforces these standards. Auditors can’t enforce the law when they see violations, and they don’t have to report lawbreakers, but they do wield some power. Even though food producers can hire auditors who will provide any requested results,overall, Lott believes the food industry remains safe because it has to be – too much money is at stake.

Fair trade and organic labels serve a socially approved “enlightened consumer.”Ethical food doesn’t have as much to do with the means of production as it does with each consumer’s conscience. Certifications may make you feel better about indulging yourself. And, as Lott notes, aware consumers pay a premium for sustainable, organic agriculture and the humane treatment of animals.

Human Trafficking

Lott covers the entire food industry, and he finds plenty to worry about, but human trafficking provokes out his strongest moral outrage. In one example, he details how, Thailand – which needed shrimp harvesting laborers – lured impoverished, undocumented immigrants from Burma (Myanmar) into what became a slave market.

This labor is 100% necessary across the globe. The whole system depends on it. It gives us the prices people have come to expect. And the profits. Shrimp industry expert

For example, a laborer named Tun-Lin has spent 14 years on shrimp trawlers, working five years just to pay off the debt that the man who bought him from a human trafficker incurred. His employers beat him. When his five years were up, he signed onto another boat because he had nowhere else to go. The Thai labor shortage persists because the Western world wants cheap, plentiful shrimp.

Lott rails against brokers and agents who grant the food industry “plausible deniability.” Third-party certification puts the onus on producers, who make money by cutting costs – and they control the cost of labor.

Humanity United, a nonprofit created by the billionaire founders of eBay, is “dedicated to cultivating the conditions for enduring peace and freedom.” Its researchers learned, to their shock, that more than 35 million people per year work “under coercion” in roles that are vital to the global economy. The organization identified 10 items in the commodity market that would generate media attention to human trafficking: chocolate, coffee, shrimp, cattle, tungsten, cotton, timber, sugar, palm oil and gold. Humanity United’s investigation, which won a Pulitzer Prize, illuminates this overwhelming problem.

As long as consumers demand low prices and plentiful products, enslavement entraps workers. The supply chain is so complex, Lott laments, that no one knows how to reform it. When public outrage drives investment out of one region, the money shifts to another. Lott contends that instead of investigating how exploitation of the poor occurs, the media should focus on why these workers are so impoverished in the first place.

A Foul Taste

Lott regards the food industry as basically irreparable, and he sees cosmetic attempts at soothing richer consumers’ conscience as unconscionable. His strong moral compass and quiet, consistent outrage informs this indispensable report. Lott doesn’t rail against everyone. He’s willing to accept necessary complex structures, such as slaughterhouses. But when he finds obscenity – as with human trafficking in the seafood trade – he unleashes all his eloquence. Lott is an exceptional writer and daring journalist. His report will fascinate anyone who eats.

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