Sunday, February 04, 2007

Slowing Things Down...

The Frugal Foodie is hard at work in graduate school this quarter so is taking a break from building a blog audience. Hopefully the Google searchers will continue to enjoy the tips and rants I've already dished up. I look forward to more posts as times permits...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Food Politics: Federal Food Legislation Edition

A good friend asks the following:

Dear Frugal,

In a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times (link), the paper ran an article on the Safe Food Act that is set to go before congress in the new year. The Bill is essentially a populist response to the recent E. coli outbreaks, aiming to created a "single food safety agency, streamlining a system so bifurcated that the Department of Agriculture inspects frozen meat pizza while the Food and Drug Administration inspects cheese pizza." If I may, two questions comes to mind:

1) What effect do you forsee this having on the cost of produce for those of us unfortunate enough to live outside of California?
2) As the article suggests, is it truly possible that "fresh produce causes more food-borne illness than meat..."? This seems antithetical to my parochial, Joy of Cooking-bound culinary sensibilities...

-Man from LaManche
Baltimore, Maryland
Having spent a summer analyzing federal legislation, I have at least a little bit of experience on such matters. You can find the text of the Food Safety Act of 2005 here. It was introduced to both the House and the Senate in the last congressional session, but never made it through the committees to come up for a vote. (This is why committees in Congress are so important!) The bill will need to be reintroduced into the House and Senate because old bills are swept away for each new congressional session.

I have read through the bill myself, and it seems that it's basic function is to consolidate the various food regulation responsibilities that are currently scattered around in various agencies of the federal government. In addition, the Food Safety Administration will have more total oversight than currently exists.

I wouldn't necessarily describe the motivations for this bill as "populist". It seems to be more bureaucratic in nature, and is another example of the consolidation of power within the federal government. An analogous creation is the Homeland Security Department, which was supposed to "streamline" the job of protecting the country by consolidating separate agencies within one department. The Homeland Security Department has not been seen as a major improvement; the Food Safety Administration might be no different.

To answer your specific questions, it is somewhat unclear how the bill would affect food prices around the country. Funding for the agency seems to come from general appropriations rather than a specific food tax, but I'm not sure whether food establishments would have to pay for the cost of inspection themselves.

There is significant leeway in the bill as to the specific regulations that would be created. If the administrator created transparent regulations with clear standards and a streamlined process, I would expect food safety to go up and food cost to go down for meat products and processed foods made by large producers.

Fruit and vegetable costs would likely go up, b/c fruits and vegetable are currently lightly regulated. Under the bill, regulation of fruit and vegetable farms as well as fruit and vegetable processing would increase. However, the incidence of E. coli and other such contaminations might go down, so there is obviously a trade-off. The worst case scenario is of course increased costs without any increase in food safety.

Overall, I would expect food prices for big farms and big processing companies to stay the same or go down a little, but I would expect the prices from smaller operations to go up significantly. Check out this article for thoughts on why the bill would be bad for small farms.

As for your second question, I couldn't dig up any data in a quick search that gave a clear answer, but it is true that infections related to tainted vegetables are more significant than most people think. The statistic does not sound unreasonable. And yes, it does somewhat conflict with the vision we have of the purity of fruits and vegetables and the danger of animal products. However, the amount of dirt and bugs that arrive with my produce box every week may be an indication that vegetables on and in the ground aren't so clean afterall. (Wash your produce!)

To ask a more philosophical question, what is the proper role of government in protecting the public health? Must the government prevent all possible harms we could encounter? Must all hamburgers be cooked to medium well? Must runny yolks be outlawed? Can we eat unpasteurized cheese and milk? I'd prefer that responsibility (and freedom) were left to individuals and that the government help with gathering information on food safety that might otherwise be unobtainable, such as ingredients, origin, processing methods, etc.

I'm going to write more about this soon, but Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is essentially a story of government food policy gone awry. (It's practically a libertarian manifesto, and Pollan doesn't even know it!) The feds subsidize corn, which causes us all to get fat, and they excessively regulate small farmers such that they can't make a profit.

Overall, the Food Policy Act seems much more likely to help the giant farmer than the small farmer, and it doesn't give any thought to protecting consumer freedom. In the eyes of the regulators, you are just part of the public, and your health needs to be protected at all costs. These things are deal breakers for me.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Tuesday Food Politics: Trader Joe's Defeats The Tyranny of Mustard

This is another post I wrote a while back for now-stalled (failed?) blogging project. I will be writing more about Trader Joe's soon, b/c Joe's is just that good.

I came across an essay by Jesse Friedman called "Knowing its Audience: Trader Joe'’s and the Reenchantment of Food Shopping". Key quote:

"With Trader Joe's, predictability does not mean the bland comfort of identical experiences, but rather the reliable quality of every product offered...To establish the consistent quality of new products, founder Joe Coulombe instituted "“a winning concept…born of necessity": a good, old-fashioned tasting panel composed of store employees. A whimsical hand-painted sign in one store describes the panel'’s philosophy as, "“If we don't lick our plate, we won't sell it,"” a statement in no uncertain terms of the company'’s commitment to selling delicious products...If all this quality assurance fails, customers are assured of a no-hassle refund on any product they don't love, encouraging forays into new, yet safely delineated, territories of culinaria...Today'’s Balsamic-Marinated Portabella Mushroom Strips have replaced the Bagel Pizzas of the previous decade, yet are predictably healthy and, most likely, delicious, and satisfy the clientele'’s desire for some adventure."
For someone who is adventurous yet budget-conscious when it comes to food, Trader Joe's is perfect. I find myself grabbing food items I never thought I wanted and just trying them for the heck of it. More often than not what I've tried is awesome, and I trust Trader Joe's to sell delicious products at a good price.

So what does this have to do with mustard? Psychologists have pretty much nailed down in recent years that we are lazy, irrational, and easily-scared when it comes to the choices we confront every day. One psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has argued that we'd all be better off if we had fewer choices. We'd be less stressed, less anxious, less paralyzed by the dizzying array of options and choices that confront us everyday, and just generally happier. Radley Balko has facetiously called this argument the Tyranny of Mustard, in reference to the 100+ mustard choices we face at the local mega-mart.

An article in Reason last year by Virginia Postrel reviewed the recent criticisms of choice. She gives good reasons why the arguments may be overblown, but also lists ways that we can successfully reap the benefits of nearly unlimited choice while avoiding the debilitating side effects:
"Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time. They decide to be vegan, to write strictly metered poetry, to wear natural fibers, to date born-again Christians, to buy Japanese cars. They happily shop at boutiques, use blogs to guide their reading, and hire interior designers. They let expert gatekeepers narrow down their alternatives.

These choices about what and how to choose are not only voluntary but meaningful. They help define who we are. And they preserve the essential value of abundant choice. Most people, most of the time, are less interested in choice per se than they are in the benefits of variety. They want to find what truly suits them.

Hiring an interior designer or wedding consultant is not, as The Washington Post’s Mallaby suggests, a way of “deliberately avoiding choice.” To the contrary, these specialists are valuable because they don’t simply limit the number of options. They limit those options to ones you’re likely to like. They do not hand you a one-size-fits-all solution à la Social Security. Unlike the Schwartz prescription for “less choice” overall, these gatekeepers do not reduce your chance of finding what’s right for you. They increase it."
By "outsourcing" some of my food choices to Trader Joe's, shopping is more fun, more productive, and more successful.

Interestingly, the dijon mustard at Trader Joe's sucks. I guess I can't have everything.

How Do I Determine Which Taqueria To Try?

This is a post I wrote about a year ago for now-stalled (failed?) blogging project. I haven't made any great taqueria discoveries since, but I can't say I've tried too hard (unlike this guy). Burrito Corner in Mountain View has some pretty good options for the area. (I must admit that I actually really like Chipotle.) As for the information problem, Yelp is helping with review aggregation, and the reinvigorated Chowhound has led to some really delicious eats, such as Gregoire in Berkeley last weekend.

I've just completed my fifth month of living in California. Given the stated purpose of this blog to be about perspectives of young East Coasters just moved to the Bay Area, and given that my largest personal interest right now is food, I thought I'd write down some thoughts on California food that I've gathered over the past five months.

Firstly, the produce is great. I don't have an organic fetish by any means, but I appreciate having so many local farmer's markets for specialty fruits and vegetables. I also frequent the Milk Pail in Mountain View for amazingly cheap basic produce and Trader Joe's for Whole Foods-like products at sub-Safeway prices.

Secondly, Silicon Valley has many ethnic restaurants, and it's been a pleasure trying new ones as often as I can afford.

This brings me to my question: how do I determine which taqueria to try? And, perhaps more importantly, how do I know what to get once I'm there? (This question of course applies to all cheap ethnic restaurants, but I will use taquerias as my example because of their California preeminence.)

There are literally dozens of taquerias within a short drive of where I live. I've tried a few so far, but to be honest I don't have the time or the money to sample the goods at dozens of places to determine my favorite tacos al pastor or carnitas burrito.

One traditional guide for dining advice is the local newspaper food columnist, but the kind of ethnic places I'm seeking are generally ignored by the dining section.

In contrast, the democracy of the internet would seem to be the perfect filter for the kind of information I'm looking for. One website that has become a first stop whenever I'm seeking food advice is Chowhound , a public message board of food reviews that often focuses on local favorites. However, Chowhound is a pain to navigate and it takes a lot of effort to distill advice from the message threads.

Perhaps a trusted expert is the right solution? When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area this past summer, I had great success following the advice of Tyler Cowen and his ethnic dining guide, but I haven't yet found anything so comprehensive or reliable out here.

Essentially, there is an information problem. I am seeking knowledge on local taquerias, but there is really no easy way for me to make the best ex ante decision. I can only rely on advice and intuition, and thus I will inevitably make mistakes in my eating choices.

I have several thoughts:

1. Very basic economic theory assumes that individuals only make purchases when the expected utility exceeds the expected cost. I make purchasing mistakes more often than I want to, and thus if I made better decisions my total utility would be greater. Review sites like epinions help, but it is still too much effort to become fully informed, and thus I remain rationally ignorant.

2. It is fun to discover a great restaurant. I would lose the pleasure of the search if I knew the answer ahead of time.

3. Is it possible to objectively determine the "best" taqueria? Of course not, but I do believe it is possible to categorize certain taquerias as being objectively exceptional. Determining which of these exceptional taquerias is the best is the subjective decision. My goal in the taqueria search is to narrow the local list down from dozens to the handful that are worth exploring. The internet has made this quest easier for me than for previous generations, but it is still too difficult.

I would categorize this taqueria dilemma as a "good problem". My arteries may beg to differ, but I am better off for having so many taqueria choices.

Things That Taste Better Than They Smell: Cherimoyas Edition

This is another post I wrote a while back for now-stalled (failed?) blogging project. Since writing this I have actually met someone who grew up on a cherimoya farm near Santa Barbara. She can't stand the fruit. And much to my chagrin, I've learned that the smell I write about below was simply the cherimoya rotting on my counter.

I have a tendency to buy exotic looking food items whenever I see them in a market, especially when I have no idea what they are. This week's purchase was a cherimoya.

As the cherimoya became ripe over the past few days, my apartment was greeted with the powerful smell of rotting vomit, bringing back fond memories of living with five other frat boys sophomore year in college.

The fruit, however, tastes sublime. It is moist, tender, and sweet, with a flavor that resembles pineapple, mango, and peach. I didn't notice any avocado-like notes, although perhaps that association is more about texture.

Would I buy one again? Not at the price I paid. (I really need to stop putting exotic items in my basket at random.) But it was delicious, and is another example of why moving to California has been such an interesting experience.

(I may make this a recurring topic. Stinky cheese and nam pla, i.e. fish sauce, are obvious items to highlight.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Tuesday Food Politics: Starbucks vs. Trans Fats

Starbucks phases out trans fats in its baked goods. Story here.

Spokesman says, "New York's ban didn't play a part in Starbucks' switch."

More evidence that a freedom-limiting ban on trans fats is unnecessary. It is good business for a company to sell products that are trans-fat free.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Should You Pay a Premium For a Lifetime Warranty?

A friend shares the following:

Here's a funny story- my dad has this wheelbarrow that I swear is older than I am. It's quality, but has a wooden frame that fractured a few years ago and has since been braced. Of course that doesn't stop him from loading it with about 200 lbs worth of logs. Right after he starts pushing it, he hits a bump and the frame cracks, rendering it useless. So we borrowed our neighbor's for the rest of the day, end of story. Then the next day my brother comes over and as we're telling him about the broken wheelbarrow, he picks it up, looks at it and smiles. It's a Sears Craftsman, he says, lifetime warranty. So today my dad and I limped this 25 year old broken rusted up wheelbarrow into Sears and the manager gladly gave us an $80 wheelbarrow at no charge. God Bless America!
I'm a big fan of guarantees. In fact, I do most of my food shopping at two places, Costco and Trader Joe's, that have extremely generous guarantees on their products. If you're not happy, you can return the product anytime, no questions asked.

But are guarantees worth it if you have to pay a premium?

My two questions:

1. How much of a price premium does a product with a lifetime guarantee/warranty demand? A good research project would be to calculate the price difference between products of the same quality sold with and without a lifetime warranty or guarantee.

2. When is this premium worth it? If the invested savings from buying the non-guaranteed product grew bigger than the replacement cost of the item before the item broke, then the guarantee would be a bad deal.

I don't have the data to back me up on this, but my guess is that the general price premium for lifetime guaranteed products isn't that large, thus making the premium worth it, particularly if you're risk averse. Any advice from readers out there?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Don't Buy Pre-Cut, Pre-Marinated Meat

If you want to make a stew, or kebabs, or a stir fry, don't buy pre-cut meat. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll be sacrificing both quality (meat surfaces deteriorate when exposed to oxygen) and control ("stew meat" is meaningless - you want to pick the specific cut that is best for what you're trying to make). You'll be paying much more for about 1 minute of cutting and a little bit of cleaning. So don't buy pre-cut meat. Just don't.

If you want to marinate your meat before cooking, don't buy pre-marinated meat from the supermarket. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll again be sacrificing both quality and control in your final dish. Moreover, you'll basically be buying water at several dollars per pound. Why's that, you ask? Well, some retailers use a "vaccum tumbler" to infuse the meat with whatever spices and liquids they include in the marinade. Then they charge you several dollars more per pound for the convenience of meat soaked in flavored water. So, for the same meat quantity, you pay extra per pound of meat for the "convenience" and then you have to buy the marinade back at the same price as the meat. Instead, make your marinade from scratch in five minutes, then put meat+marinade in a plastic bag in the fridge and let it soak up the flavor for as long as needed.

See this video, from the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board series on "value-added cutting", for all the inside details on the retailer's strategy. Direct quote: "I can tell you that by vacuum tumbling, you can expect a [weight] pick-up of anywhere from 10 to 20%. That means great money for your bottom line. In fact, you can expect in excess of 50% profit when you produce your [pork] in the fashion that I've shown you here today."

I prefer not to hand over my hard-earned money directly into the retailer's pocket. Thus I shop where my profit (e.g. my "consumer surplus", the difference between the value I get and what I pay) is maximized and the retailer's profit is minimized.

UPDATE: Consumerist links here, and posts the pork videos on YouTube:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: The Economist vs. Ethical Food Edition

The Economist has a major article this week on why "Ethical Food" may not deliver all that is promised. Definitely read the whole thing, but I'll summarize the key arguments:

1. Organic farming uses less fertilizers and pesticides, but uses more land because it is less efficient. This could lead to increased deforestation if adopted on a global scale. Organic farming also is more labor intensive, thus may not save very much energy overall. I'm not sure the question of which type of farming is least harmful can be answered scientifically, but it's interesting to think about the side-effects of seemingly well-intentioned food choices.

2. "Fairtrade" products offer a price-premium to certified producers, but the Economist argues that this merely perpetuates the problem of commodity overproduction through the Fairtrade subsidy. I've never sought out Fairtrade products, and am much closer to believing that "Free Trade is Fair Trade". But I do like the advocacy work of the Rainforest Alliance, which provides advice, credit, and marketing help to producers and workers, not permanent subsidy.

3. Local food isn't as great as it seems, particularly when it comes to "food miles", much as I wrote about earlier. The Economist tries to highlight a few cases where local food isn't as fresh and delicious as long-distance food, but the evidence is scant. I choose to eat local food because of its quality, but perhaps this is just a privilege of living in California.

I really like one of the conclusions of the article: "Local sourcing coupled with supermarkets' efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around." Whole Foods is trying to do this more and more. I've even heard that Sysco, the foodservice giant, might be able to use its inventory and distribution software to integrate very small producers into their supply chains. This is perhaps a food industry example of the Long Tail, and is certainly an instance where technology can be leveraged to good ends.

Friday Food Politics: Food Miles Is A Crock Edition

A very interesting discussion on eGullet titled "Food Miles is a Crock".

Key quote: "Assume that the typical surburban family drives a 25 Miles Per Gallon vehicle, lives 2.5 miles from their nearest supermarket and buys 20 pounds of groceries in the average shopping trip...You could move that 20 pounds of groceries exactly halfway around the world by ship for the same amount of fuel as it takes for you to go to the store and back."

The conclusion: "Now, does this on the face of it means that eating locally is crap? Of course not, all of the previous reasons to do with freshness, seasonality and supporting local farmers are still valid."

I made a similar argument, that advocacy to "eat local" is primarily aesthetic rather than environmental, in this post.

(Hat-tip to Megnut.)