Package Groceries

( Originally Published 1931 )

UNDOUBTEDLY the greatest revolution in housekeeping routine is in the preparation of meals. The kitchen has become to a considerable degree merely a serving pantry. Compare, for instance, the old-fashioned method of making a meat soup with the new. Once the soup kettle was practically a fixture on the back of the stove, while now the broth remains in the can in which it was bought until a few moments before meal-time and is then merely heated and served. The same is true of vegetables, of cooked fruits, and even of many types of meat and fish.

Yet the price of this great simplification in preparation is the costly one of complete ignorance of the quality of ingredients and preparation represented in the various tin and glass containers from which the shopper tries to make a selection of nourishing and palatable dishes. We are assured that federal, and frequently local, regulations and inspection now protect our food supplies from the adulterations and the unclean conditions which signalized the early days of this revolution in food preparation; but that is a long way from the knowledge which we once had as to exactly what went into the soup kettle, how long it simmered, and what was the strength and richness of the resulting broth. The price we pay for ease is dependence on the honesty and workmanship of per-sons unknown to us, who are interested only in our purses.

We are led to believe that the great canning and packing companies which brand their products and advertise them extensively are certainly going to maintain their quality in order to protect their heavy investment in advertising and in the general goodwill which this expense is intended to promote. But we also know two or three other things. One is that the prices of raw food products fluctuate considerably. Another is that a food manufacturer who by continual advertising has educated the public into buying his product for, let us say, twenty-five cents a can, is loath to raise the price to thirty cents in order to cover a possibly temporary increase in the cost of his raw materials. A third thing we know is that, if he skimps on the concentrated broth (which is expensive) and adds more water (which is cheap), we cannot detect the difference.

The writer was once told the story of a fire in the elevator warehouse of a large establishment marketing coffee under a brand name. The fire was a bad one and the damage was estimated at more than $1,000,000. The interesting thing was that much of the loss was incurred in the destruction of Canadian peas. Unfortunately for the coffee concern, the peas were prematurely roasted and unscientifically blended!

Naturally, it does not follow that all, or even many, of the large food manufacturers are guilty of such practices. But the temptation is there with only the personal honesty of the individual manufacturers as a protection to themselves and to the public; and there is nothing to prevent any man or group of men from opening a cannery or a packing plant, embarking on a clever advertising and selling campaign, and thus becoming an important purveyor of food to the American public. So long as such an establishment meets the simple standards of the Food and Drug Act it can fix (and change) its own standards of actual food content. This is as unfair to the decent concerns as it is to the public, and it will continue as one of the most serious problems of the housewife until more exact specifications are demanded.

Interestingly enough the first move toward improvement in this situation has been stimulated by the bankers. The canning and packing of foodstuffs are highly seasonal activities in many instances. For example, salmon are canned when the fish come into the rivers to spawn; vegetables and fruits must be put up during the comparatively short periods when they are ripening. Hence, some of the peas which are canned in June will not be sold until April or May of the following year. In the meantime the cannery will want at least some of the money it expects to get for them eventually; it therefore goes to a bank and offers a warehouse receipt for so many cases of canned peas as security for a loan. Immediately the bank wants to know just how good these peas are before deciding how large a sum it can safely lend to the cannery.

As a result the canners and packers are coming to see that they can greatly simplify their relations with the banks by adopting fixed sets of standards as to sizes and excellence of foodstuffs as the basis for borrowing money. Once these standards are worked out for use in dealing with the banks, the information can be made available to the consumer, who will then know at least approximately what the food value is in the can that she is buying.

There remain two other things which we realize as soon as we are told. One is that a bottle or can with a net capacity of twelve fluid ounces can be so shaped that, on cursory examination, it will seem considerably larger than the old, accustomed container which held fourteen fluid ounces. The other is that many of the extensively advertised brands are put up in a number of grades, but the only one described in the advertising is the best. The grades are distinguished from each other by certain descriptive adjectives arbitrarily selected by the canner. As a rule the procedure is to introduce only the best grade when the advertising campaign starts and let the public become generally acquainted with its excellence; then begin distributing the inferior grades under the same label with the exception of a change in the descriptive adjective which the purchaser can be counted on overlooking in most instances.

Take canned asparagus as an example. Blank & Co. advertise their Magenta Brand. The label on the can is distinctive and attractive; somewhere on it is the word "Gigantic." The can contains nine stalks of the finest quality. As soon as this product has established a popular market, the canner adds another grade. He makes no change whatsoever in his advertising or in the size of the can. He uses the same distinctive label, but replaces "Gigantic" with "Tremendous." This new can contains twelve stalks which are smaller and slightly inferior in quality. In due time he adds the "Stupendous" grade of the Magenta Brand, and so on until the label which is identified by the public with the best grade may be selling stalks of a size and quality little above overgrown grass. The canner may still be distributing his best "Gigantic" grade, and the store which you usually patronize may still give it to you when you ask for Magenta Brand asparagus; but if you should go to another store and order by brand name only, you run the chance of being given one of the inferior grades. You may be charged less and believe that you have run across a more economical store with which to do business until you open the can at home and see and taste the asparagus. Even if you find out from the grocer that he carries two or more grades and you compare their labels, you still face the problem of deciding whether "gigantic" is a more tremendous word than "stupendous" in the canner's vocabulary. Your only salvation if you like a certain grade of Magenta Brand is to memorize the keyword on the label and invariably specify that when ordering.

Supplementing the output of the so-called national advertisers is a growing volume (already considerable in the aggregate) of food products which are specially prepared and packed under special labels for the varions chains of retail stores and, in some cases, for the large independent retailers. These exclusive brands are subject to the same scrutiny as the products of the national advertisers; they are as honest in quantity and quality as the standards of the respective retailers exact.

After this probing of some of the weaknesses of the modern method of food distribution through package goods, it must be clearly stated that this method is a distinct advance over the old way of retailing from bins and barrels. It offers considerably more protection to the shopper. With the cartons, cans, or bottles packed and sealed by the manufacturer, responsibility is concentrated in a comparatively few producers instead of being spread among a myriad of shop-keepers, big and little, honest and unscrupulous. Modern production simplifies inspection of the products while they are being made, and the container protects them from dirt in the often complicated trip from producer to consumer. Furthermore, the appearance of the packages on the grocer's shelves is at least a rough indication of the freshness of their contents.

From another viewpoint the package or container method of preparing foodstuffs for retail marketing is a great boon to the housekeeper; for this method permits the products to be prepared, packed, and sealed at the place of growth. This means that the fruits and vegetables can remain on the trees or vines until they are well ripened; also that the productive sources which can be tapped are greatly multiplied, with corresponding variety in the types and quality of the foodstuffs made available to the consumer.

In this connection it must be remembered that many products of the soil are dependent for their flavor, size, color, and general excellence upon the soil, climate and other local conditions where they are grown. The result is that the less favored regions try to identify their products with those of a more popular geography; thus we have "Maine corn" which is grown and packed in Maryland. The explanation is that the seed which was planted and harvested in Maryland was grown in Maine. In the case of corn this combination results in a satisfactory product, but in some cases the relationship is even more attenuated and the product is by no means what it is claimed to be.

Much of a shopper's success in this field of package groceries depends on the care and intelligence with which she reads the labels of the things from which she is making her selections; for these labels must give at least certain information of vital importance. For instance, the exact amount or percentage of any harmful adulterant or preservative must be stated. For certain foodstuffs, notably fruit juices, a preservative (such as benzoate of soda) is practically essential; but the use of such a preservative is carefully regulated by the government and is not harmful in the quantity permitted by the inspectors. Again, the label must state the net weight or measurement of the contents. The print in which these facts are reported may be small and inconspicuously placed, but this information has to be given on the label, and it is well worth finding and considering before a purchase is made. Furthermore, although the most preposterous claims can be made in advertising goods, federal regulations censor the claims that are printed on the labels and wrappers of all prepared foodstuffs sold in more than one state and thus subject to the federal Food and Drugs Act. With the increasing vogue of so-called "health foods" this censorship is of heightened importance; and it may startle some shoppers to compare the tremendous claims in the advertisements of certain products with the more modest verbiage of the labels. If so, it should startle the shopper into avoiding any product which does not (because it legally cannot) tell exactly the same story on its censored label as it does in its uncensored and wholly irresponsible advertising.

The most important lesson in label-reading, however, is that in the report of net contents. The American market for foodstuffs is highly competitive, especially among the staple products. Take tomato ketchup, for instance. There are any number of brands made much the same way out of much the same materials. Price differentials among the various brands should be insignificant. But let us see what actually happens. "A" Brand ketchup is sold for 29 cents in lovely, slender bottles which overtop the squatter ones in which the "B" Brand product is sold for 32 cents. The vote is unanimously for A; then one of us reads the labels and there is a move to reconsider the vote. A's bottle is marked "Net weight, 12 oz." while B reports "Net weight, 16 oz." The mathematics of the situation is that B is selling his ketchup at 2 cents an ounce or at the rate of 24 cents for the twelve ounces for which A demands 29 cents. If we are planning to use A's thin bottle for a vase or as the base for a lamp, we are not really interested in ketchup; but if, as is presumable, our purpose is to buy ketchup, we shall buy B's brand and throw the bottle away when it is empty.

This is as simple a little problem in arithmetic as ever the children brought home from school, but it is just these elementary exercises in division, multiplication, and subtraction which underlie intelligent shop-ping. Sometimes they are in terms of ketchup; at other times the heroes or heroines are beans, codfish flakes, olives, crackers, or almost any other item on the grocery list. But always the arithmetic starts with those significant figures, however finely they are printed, on the labels.


Teas and coffees present a special problem which arises from the fact that the average person has decided preferences as to taste and yet knows little or nothing about the coffee berry or the tea leaf which is the basis of his beverage. He is much like our bromidic friend who is no artist but knows what he likes. Reference has already been made to the important influence of soil, climate, etc, on the flavor of products of the soil, and this fact is particularly important in the cases of coffee and tea. So much depends on the specific origin of the product; so much depends on the methods by which it is roasted or dried, and so much, finally, depends on the way in which the beverage is brewed.

So far as the American market is concerned, both coffee and tea are wholly imported. Coffee is grown to the south of us from Mexico to Brazil, as well as in the East Indies. Brazil is our greatest source of supply, two-thirds of our total importations coming from that country; but Brazilian coffee is generally considered to have a bitter, acid taste and the most highly prized flavors are Mocha and Java. Adding the Brazilian supremacy in quantity and the East Indian supremacy in quality, we get the inevitable answer blending. Once we embark on blending there are all sorts of delightful possibilities, such as chicory, Canadian peas, and wheat. Each happy combination, or blending, of these various commodities produces something which is coffee to the manufacturer and his advertising agent, and which may mean coffee to the purchasers. Once we understand this situation, the "coffee heart" would seem to be no longer a menace to be avoided but a goal beyond our reach.

Coffee is imported in bags of berries known as green beans. A little of it reaches the retail market in this condition, the purchasers roasting it according to their own special formulae; but most of it is bought by the roasters and the packers. In the former case the coffee is roasted in special ovens and sold in bulk to the wholesalers either in the whole bean or ground; in the latter case it is roasted and then packed in special containers for the retail trade as whole, steel-cut, or pulverized coffee. The "blending" is done in either case at the time of roasting.

Coffee contains aromatic oils which are volatilized in the roasting and much of this savor is lost unless the roasted coffee is quickly and hermetically sealed. For this reason coffee bought from packers in special containers has retained its freshness better than that which has been handled in bulk and is scooped from bins for the purchasers at the retail stores; for this reason also coffee retains its flavor better in the bean than when ground. At the same time the usual grinding for the American market does not break up the bean sufficiently to release all the flavor when the beverage is prepared. For comparative purposes it is worth noting that the coffee-producing countries take freshly roasted and "unblended" beans, pulverize them, and pour boiling water through this powder once. The result has quite a different taste from the drink we serve at breakfast and even from our after dinner coffee; but we should remember that these people know coffee as well as knowing what they like.

However, taste is entirely a personal matter; it is the problem of how to buy which concerns us. Here are some hints which may help to guide the shopper in making her selection :

When roasted for the American market, coffee loses from 18 to 20 per cent in weight; for this reason the shopper may reasonably demand an important price differential between green and roasted coffee of like quality.

At present writing really good coffee (roasted) is worth at least 50 cents a pound retail, except for the Brazilian product, which can be sold for 35 cents.

Watch the references to Java in descriptions of blended coffees. A blend may "contain the finest grade of Java" in sufficient quantity to satisfy the advertiser but not to please you.

The typical corner grocery usually carries two grades of loose coffee priced at approximately 49 cents and 39 cents a pound, respectively. This often proves to be the plot for an amusing little drama. Let us say that you buy some of the 49-cent grade and a few days later return to the store and say you don't like it. The grocer assumes that you want something better and are ready to pay more for it. But his only alternative is his 39-cent grade. Therefore he .scoops up a pound of it, asks you to try it and charges you 57 cents for it. It certainly has a different taste and you may like it and order more. Then the grocer's only worry is to remember to charge you 57 cents a pound for the 39-cent grade whenever you order more coffee. And this little comedy of manners is not just fiction.

One advantage of buying loose coffee is a definite one. For good psychological reasons we don't mind paying fluctuating prices for staple products sold from bulk whereas we resent paying more for a branded package with which we have come to associate a definite price. As a result, loose coffee can maintain its quality because it can meet price changes in the primary market by price changes in the retail stores, while the branded package goods do not dare to raise their prices and are forced to meet the situation by (to put it euphemistically) modifying their blends. Of course, the great packers buy their green coffee with intelligence and foresight, and many of them will sacrifice even part of a reasonable profit before impairing quality; but the danger is there and it sometimes is a real one. At the same time there is a very definite compensation in the special package brands through the convenience and efficiency of the containers which have been developed for them.

When buying ground products such as coffee, examine for evenness of granulation and of color. Frequently adulterants are off color and are of quite different granulation from that of the product which you want to buy.

Tea. In considering tea, we cover much the same ground as in the case of coffee. Instead of being a berry, the tea of commerce is the tender leaf or bud of a bush grown in India, China, Japan, and the islands of the Far East. It corresponds in miniature to New Zealand spinach, which has become popular as a vegetable. Tea either is cured in the hot sun, when it is known as green tea; or is thoroughly dried in special braziers, and is known as black tea. Flavor and quality depend on the place of production, and the teas of commerce are largely blends. Taste must be the chief determinant, but the shopper may well bear in mind that a tea selling at one dollar a pound may produce more than twice as many cups of beverage as one selling for half that price. It is particularly desirable to buy tea by the package rather than in bulk because the package variety has been automatically freed of dust, hulls, and other foreign matter before being packed, and because the container protects the tea leaves, which are brittle after the curing process, from being broken and pulverized in handling between the Far East and the local store.


Federal regulations protect you from harmful adulterants and harmful use of preservatives in foodstuffs prepared for national distribution, but give you no assurance as to the quality or food value of the preparations.

Federal regulations prohibit false claims to be printed on the containers but have no control over fake statements in the general advertising of the products. It is therefore more important to read the labels than the advertisements if you want to know what you are buying.

Federal regulations require the net contents of a container to be stated on its label, but this is no protection to you unless you read the label. Without this knowledge you cannot possibly compare prices between competitive products.

Frequently several grades are sold under one brand name, although the advertising of the brand is based entirely on the best grade. Know what grade you want, and specify it when ordering. By so doing you will incidentally acquire a colossal vocabulary of superlative magnificence.

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