Photo: Wikimedia Commons
For nearly a year, Tracie McMillan, a former editor at City Limits, went undercover, working alongside Mexican garlic crews, produce managers at Walmart – the nation’s largest supplier of food – and Caribbean line cooks at Applebee’s to learn about America’s food system.McMillan, author of the new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, wanted to explore the true cost of food in America and follow every step of the process before it reaches our plates.
The Fiscal Times talked with her about why Walmart is becoming too big to fail and what not to eat at Applebee’s.
TFT: What secrets did you uncover while working at Walmart?
TM: Walmart’s notoriously secretive, but I got one of their inventory sheets from a shipment, so I know what their price margins are. Walmart has an insane advantage because it’s so large.
A traditional supermarket has 50,000-60,000 items, while a Walmart supercenter has 135,000. If you have an additional 80-90,000 items, you can price 30,000 items at little to no profit.
There are 29 metropolitan areas where Walmart controls 50 per cent or more of the grocery market, and [overall] Walmart controls about 22 to 24 per cent of food retail in the U.S., which is the biggest share of any food retailer in history and bigger than the next three retailers combined. And when consolidation happens in marketplaces, prices tend to rise.
I don’t trust a company to not raise its prices if it has the ability to. Walmart is publicly traded; there’s no reason for it to keep charging us low prices if it’s gotten rid of the competition. The idea that we’re encouraging Walmart to enter under-served communities and further expand gives it a level of power over our food supply that I’m uncomfortable with.
I’m for produce in our communities, but when a company controls 25-30 per cent of an industry, it becomes too big to fail. It’s one thing when you’re making cars; it’s another thing when it’s your food supply.
TFT: How about your time at Applebee’s? Learn anything interesting about how they’re using food?
TM: I didn’t get any formal food safety training and no one there seemed like they had any formal food safety training.
Cooks would give me a tray of mashed potatoes that were two days over their expiration date and they’d ask me to reheat them so they could use them. I would turn to the guy training me and ask, “Isn’t that gross?” and he said, “You’re going to see a lot of things here.”
Also, the portioning for the sides is done in advance. So the broccoli comes in pre-cut florets. You dump those into a big tub and then make this gelatinous Italian dressing and put it into bags. Then you put the broccoli in the microwave, and it steams in the bag.
You don’t take the broccoli out of the bag until just before it goes out, because it will start congealing and looking weird, so my job as an expediter was to dump it on the plate. The plastic is flaking over everything because it’s been subjected to this heat. So you’re sending out these sides that have little flakes of plastic stuck on them. If I were a diner, I would think that it was salt.
TFT: Will you ever eat at Applebee’s again?
TM: Yeah, but I stick with things that come off the grill. Burgers, steaks and fish are industrial meat and are defrosted and cooked, and generally speaking, I can tell if the meat isn’t cooked. And I have to say, their fries are pretty good.