Monday, January 10, 2011

Producto de Los Estados Unidos


My program took a trip to Rabuco, an agricultural area outside of Valparaiso and toured a blueberry farm with the stated intention, as set out by our director, to understand the effects of globalization in Chile’s agriculture. The real reason all of the students were there was for the promised feast we would (and did) have later. With the unfortunate scheduling of the excursion on a Saturday morning, the resulting collective sleep deprivation and the general indifference to blueberries (besides eating them), we were not at our academic best.

Last semester I took the “International Political Economy of Food and Hunger”, so despite the weight of a sleepy friend’s head on my shoulder for the majority of the tour, I made an effort to pay attention since I had spent the good part of a semester debating about how exactly globalization affects farmers in developing countries such as Chile. For the most part, it was in vain. The jolly owner showed us the unripe blueberry plants, took us into the room where they held the chemicals they sprayed, and showed us the outfits they picked berries in. I began to wonder about lunch.


Once we got into the packing plant I had broken off from both the group and relieved myself from my friend’s head and began to wander around, thinking about what lunch might consist of. I found myself staring lazily at the packets the blueberries were put in, unconsciously reading the words: “Sunnydale Blueberries! Product of the USA”.


While I hadn’t paid much attention, I had at least gathered that these blueberries were by no stretch of the imagination or FDA rules being produced in the States, much less at the Florida address stamped on them.

I had a brief inner struggle about whether I should embarrass this kindly man about whether his operation was essentially illegal but decided I owed it to my hours spent in Food and Hunger to at least ask. After all, I would not be able to tell this story if I didn’t have a suitable ending.


When I asked the owner his look of confusion made me think that my Spanish made my question unintelligible. I showed him the packet and told him what “Product of the United States” translated to in Spanish.

He smiled and said that the company just sends him the boxes to fill up with blueberries. He was responsible for the blueberries meeting their export standards but what how they labeled the blueberries was their own “engaño”.

Engaño is one of those words that has many translations but each one is illuminating. Engaño means: deceit, swindle, trick, ploy, mistake, misunderstanding and hoax. (Thank you, I think all are appropriate.

On that note, he decided to direct us to the free samples of blueberry jam. My friend started to speculate on how awesome it may be if the jam was dispensed by massive jam-shooting guns hanging from the ceiling accompanied by women covered only by mashed blueberries, rather than in jars. I think there may have been sound effects.


This experience (jam-shooting aside) made it startling real many of the things that I had talked about in class. (See, Dad, it’s not called “not study” abroad, it’s just learning in a different cultural context). It served as a confirmation of what I had learned and now is a perfect anecdote to illustrate what a strange, deceitful, tricky, hoaxy food system we live with.

Labels aren’t to be trusted—I would be very curious to see how the blueberries make it into the United States in these boxes and whether the FDA knows about their existence. If they do, I wonder if there is some loophole that allows them to be marketed as such.

The fractured supply chain—watching the farmer shrug off the responsibility for who eats his berries demonstrated how estranged the food system has made the producer and consumer. Between them is the looming middle man of a transnational corporation.

The importance of face-to-face information
—So where does this leave people who are determined to buy local or at least from their own country? If you can’t trust the labels and federal regulatory organization, who can you trust? (Douse with skepticism, light with irony).

No, but seriously. The information gap makes it almost impossible to be a conscientious consumer. Perhaps someday there will be an iPhone app for that. In the meantime, I award another point to the farmer’s market.

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