Written by Bill Berkowitz
Combine dough, sauce, soulless tomatoes, scientifically manufactured pepperoni, an assortment of other toppings, cookie cutter outlets, cardboard boxes, and multifarious delivery vehicles, and you’ve made your way into the world of Big Pizza. And now, thanks to journalist Frederick Kaufman, we’ve learned about how in addition to serving up mediocre pizza, Big Pizza is harming small farmers and polluting the planet.
Just how big is Big Pizza? There’s an old saying that goes: “If I had a nickel for every time that (fill in the blank) happened, I would be rich.” Usually it’s hyperbole. However, in the world of Big Pizza, one can legitimately say, “If I had a nickel for every pizza sold worldwide, I would be rich.”
Combined, the top four U.S. pizza chains — Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesar’s – have nearly 30,000 locations around the world. One company that supplies mozzarella cheese for at least two of the top pizza makers buys some 5 to 7 percent of the total available U.S. milk to supply the chains. The king of pepperoni makers produces enough pepperoni to cover 23,000 acres.
That’s how big Big Pizza is!
“Pizza is the world’s most popular food, and that enormous appetite is fueling what has recently become a transnational melee for market share and profits among” the big four pizza chains, Kaufman pointed out in an investigative piece on the pizza industry titled “The Domino’s Effect,” which appears in the December issue of Men’s Health magazine.
During the first half of the Super Bowl on February 6, Pizza Hut, one of the world’s biggest pizza chains, will make its first in-game advertising appearance. The company is moving away from its previous strategy of advertising during the pre-game show so as to encourage pizza purchases from Pizza Hut for in-game consumption: “We’ll be highlighting the role that the Pizza Hut brand plays in customers’ lives beyond the game and throughout the year,” said Kurt Kane, Pizza Hut’s vice president of advertising.
Domino’s, a pizza chain founded fifty years ago by ultra-conservative Catholic Tom Monaghan, and his brother James, recently announced the opening of the company’s 9,000th franchise, located in New Delhi, India. Domino’s CEO J. Patrick Doyle pointed out that the company is in 65 countries now and that he doesn’t see “many places where it doesn’t make sense for Domino’s pizza to go.”
Papa John’s, another humongous worldwide pizza chain “continues to be a strong and growing brand, with lots of runway remaining to grow both in the U.S. and throughout the world,” Jude Thompson, Papa John’s president and co-CEO recently proclaimed.
Pizza Hut, with nearly 15,000 locations, Domino’s, Papa John’s with more than 3,000, and Little Caesar’s, with more than 2,000, dominate the world pizza market, a market that is enormous – over $35 billion a year — and continuing to grow.
Pizza, the upside: it can taste great, especially when bought from an artisanal pizzeria; depending on the toppings you choose, it can be relatively healthy; it’s fairly inexpensive; and, it can be delivered to your door in a matter of minutes. “Pizza is as economical to buy now as it was back in the ’80s, if not more so,” says Jennifer Litz, editor of PizzaMarketplace.com, an online industry trade publication.
Then, there’s the dark side of Big Pizza. In his piece, Kaufman, who has written about American food culture and other subjects for Harper’s Magazine, the New Yorker, Gourmet, Gastronomica and the New York Times Magazine, teaches at the City University of New York and CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, asks: “… what if that large pie delivered to your doorstep costs more than you think?” According to Kaufman, “a number of economists, sociologists, and food scholars … argue that the unrelenting push for ever-cheaper pizza ingredients is hurting the planet and driving small and medium-size farms out of business.”
Dislocated farmers are often forced into urban centers where, Kaufman posits, “many find themselves among the estimated 1.1 billion people earning less than $1 a day, an amount that makes it hard to survive, let alone afford Domino’s recent special offer of $5.99 a pie for two medium pizzas.”
Sociologist Harriet Friedmann, Ph.D., a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto told Kaufman that, “We are faced with two possible futures. One is a diversity of crops, of cultures, and of cuisines that can inhabit ecosystems sustainably and produce healthy food for urban centers. The other is long-distance food from nowhere, mono-cultural systems that aren’t sustainable, and simplified diets, especially for the poor. Global pizza typifies the second option.”
“Another outspoken opponent of the circumstances underlying the worldwide pizza trade,” Kaufman wrote, “has been Philip McMichael, Ph.D., a professor of development sociology at Cornell University. He believes that the combined processes of bioindustrialization, the ever-increasing reliance of agro-industry on fossil fuels, and the relentless search for the most rapidly expanding overseas markets has led to a phenomenon he calls ‘the food regime.’ The machinations that lie behind this new world order perform very well when it comes to churning out profits for transnational corporations, but that success comes at considerable social and economic expense, says McMichael. “It’s undermining people who make their living off the land everywhere.”
The tomato-less tomato mega-farm
Kaufman started his journey into the world of Big Pizza at one of Domino’s 17 U.S. dough factories, observing the process which he called “high-tech bioindustrialiization at its finest.” After a guided tour of the dough factory, Kaufman encountered “uncountable cases of ‘Pizza Sauce Ready to Use’ produced by a company called Paradise Tomato Kitchens,” which, he concluded, is evidence that Domino’s “swallows up quite a few of the world’s tomatoes.”
The “demand” for deliverable and reliable tomatoes “has led to megafarms like the one in Yolo County, one of the largest process tomato producers of California. A vast, perfectly geometric 10,000 acres of mud is spiked with tomato seedlings that will eventually yield 120,000 tons of ‘process tomatoes’ — the kind that become commercial pizza sauce. An operation like this is not replicable in the fields of the developing world. The furrows have been dug by GPS-guided tractors, the seedlings irrigated by an underground drip often spiked with a nitrogen fertilizer called UN-32. And the process tomatoes themselves are high-tech, high-yield hybrids known as AB2, Sun 6366, and Asgrow 410.
“For the past hundred years or so, the ever-escalating technology of growing, harvesting, slicing, dicing, and pureeing has enabled process tomato to metastasize into the vegetable world’s greatest international commodity, with the bulk of the red stuff spurting from the stainless-steel condensers of factories owned by some of the biggest names in global food, names such as Del Monte, Heinz, and Unilever.”
As with most things mega, megafarms have a major downside: “… many of the other [small] farmers who used to make a living growing and selling tomatoes have been pushed out of business.”
One of the most glaring examples of this has taken place in Ghana, where “locally harvested tomatoes were once a staple,” Kaufman reported. Tomato concentrate “has destroyed the market there – not to mention the lives of nearly 2 million people involved in tomato cultivation in one region of the country.” Not only has Ghana “become the world’s second-largest importer of process tomatoes … more than 700 tomato farmers have gone belly up.”
The cheese and dairy farmers
Then there’s the cheese, “the most expensive ingredient of any” of Big Pizza’s pies. Meet the Denver, Colorado-based Leprino Foods, the world’s largest producer of mozzarella cheese. According to Kaufman, Leprino, one of the largest privately held companies in the U.S., had sales that topped $2.5 billion in 2009. “We’d prefer to stay under the radar,” a Leprino vice president told the Denver Business Journal several years ago.
“According to the most recent data, Leprino [whose leadership was reluctant to talk with Kaufman on the record] must buy an astonishing 5 to 7 percent of the total available U.S. milk in order to supply mozzarella to Domino’s and Pizza Hut and everybody else in global pizza. … [O]ne out of every 20 American milk cows must be dedicated to the production of Leprino’s mozzarella. Paradoxically, it is Leprino’s demand for milk that has driven dairy farmers to the wall.”
Kaufman discusses the “global cheese market” which “means the day-to-day dollar-and-cent fluctuations of industrial cheese have been put in the hands of the biggest buyers of milk–corporations like Leprino, Kraft, and Dean Foods. … And as cheese industrialists buy more and more milk to make the mozzarella to supply the world’s pizza purveyors, the ever-sinking price of milk has had a nasty effect on those without whom there would be no milk, no mozzarella, and no pizza.”
“The milk-pricing system is truly an attack on the family farm, and truly an attack on the family that operates the farm,” John Bunting, a dairyman from the western foothills of the Catskills, in New York State told Kaufman. Kaufman reported that “as more and more dairy farmers become impoverished, the self-destructive illogic of global pizza becomes ever more obvious: The day I speak to Bunting, he tells me that five huge dairy operations in the Texas panhandle have filed for bankruptcy.”
America and the world’s obsession for industrial pizza owes a great debt to the production of pepperoni, an often mass-produced dry-cured sausage made of beef and pork. According to Kaufman, “in order to meet global pizza demand, [Tyson Foods] … produces enough pepperoni slices each year to cover 23,000 acres, and ships them to more than 90 countries. ”
“Meat has moved from the periphery of human diet to its center,” Tony Weis, Ph.D., a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario, told Kaufman. “The least efficient converter of feed-to-flesh output is beef cattle,” he pointed out. ” [T]his inefficiency means cattle have much larger land, water, and energy budgets than most people realize,” Kaufman noted. “Diverse small farms tend to be much better converters of land and resources into protein and other nutrients than are the grain-fed cattle. As more than a billion farmers in the developing??world are going broke, more than a billion cattle are reared on the backs of subsidies.”
Accompanying the “world’s desire for cheap meat” are the increased use of “corn and wheat for feed, along with … increases [in the use of] diesel fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. In fact, overall, agriculture is responsible for about 30 percent of total emissions of greenhouse gases, and livestock accounts for more than half of that.”
Kaufman continues his journey through the land of Big Pizza with a stop in Springdale, Arkansas, the world headquarters of Tyson Foods. After a lesson in the science of pepperoni production, a tour of refrigerated vault holding the latest pepperoni “creations,” and the test kitchens, Kaufman heads home and later contacts Kevin Igli, the company’s senior vice president and chief environmental, health, and safety officer.
“If you look at what’s going on across the world, as middle-class societies develop in India and China, you see a greater desire for protein,” Igli told Kaufman. “Companies that have figured out how to produce healthy food products, and make a lot of them, are helping to feed the world.”
Kaufman concludes his excellent Big Pizza adventure by contacting Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle, who earlier this year replaced David Brandon, who stepped down to become athletic director of the University of Michigan. Kaufman asks Doyle “to respond to the accusation that his corporate strategies were ruining the livelihoods of local farmers, destroying rural communities, and contributing to the general increase of world misery.”?Doyle told Kaufman that, “The fact that our brand has global scale is the source of the question. But all our stores are owned locally, and we reinvest in local markets just like any other locally owned and operated business. We employ locally, we source locally, and we are absolutely a part of the community.”
Big Pizza is delivering all right: Along with cheap pizzas and low-paying jobs, Big Pizza is helping deliver critical blows to small farmers across the globe. The increased use of pesticides, fertilizers and fuel all are harmful to the planet. And, to top it off, Big Pizza’s pizza just isn’t that good.
About the authorBill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.