Editor’s Note:The pizza saga continues. Men’s Health editor-in-chief Dave Zinczenko recently appeared on the Today Show to discuss a New York Times article that implicated a marketing arm of the Department of Agriculture in the promotion of high-fat, excessively cheesy pizza and other cheese-heavy foods.
A few weeks after Domino’s Pizza CEO J. Patrick Doyle traveled to New Delhi for the opening of the company’s 9,000th franchise, he unveiled the next phase in the master strategy for global pizza domination. The company will establish a foothold of restaurants in Malaysia while doubling the number of U.K. locations by 2017. “We’re in 65 countries right now,” says Doyle. “We’re not seeing many places where it doesn’t make sense for Domino’s pizza to go.”
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 four players: Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Little Caesars. On the face of it, this intense competition for the dough we spend on dough sounds like a good thing. We eventually bite into better-tasting pizza that’s made faster and sold cheaper. “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 trade publication for the industry.
But what if that large pie delivered to your doorstep costs more than you think? A number of economists, sociologists, and food scholars claim that the $36 billion-a-year success of Big Pizza has ominous undertones and implications that reach far beyond weighty matters like deciding between extra cheese and anchovies. They argue that the unrelenting push for ever-cheaper pizza ingredients is hurting the planet and driving small and medium-size farms out of business. Some of these farmers feel they have no choice but to move to the megacities sprouting across the globe. Once relocated to urban slums, 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. Of the farmers that decide to stay put, some opt for a quicker death, at their own hand.
“We are faced with two possible futures,” says sociologist Harriet Friedmann, Ph.D., a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “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, monocultural 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 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.”
While I can understand acute hysteria and mass terror when it comes to melting icecaps, oil slicks the size of Arkansas, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his finger on the trigger of a nuke, I haven’t quite gotten my arms around the pizza apocalypse. So I decided to start my investigation at the beginning of the pizza chain, at the place from which a Domino’s pie springs forth. I inch my rental car through a dismal-looking industrial park outside Detroit and pull up in front of a low-slung, nondescript building that houses one of Domino’s 17 U.S. dough factories.
Way back in 1960, Domino’s founders, brothers Tom and James Monaghan, purchased their first pizza joint not all that far from this forsaken stretch of Michigan frost and weed. Today the chain employs more than 10,000 people, and its 2010 fiscal revenue topped $236 million.
I’m met at the dough factory by public relations manager Chris Brandon, an enthusiastic 20-something who leads the way into an antiseptic dough-making room of clattering conveyor belts, industrial mixers, precision dough cutters, and metal detectors. It turns out that each lump of Domino’s pizza dough must be x-rayed before it can be released into a litigious world, just in case a tooth-crushing twist of metal or stomach-puncturing screw might have fallen off the assembly line and dropped into the mix.
I approach a stainless-steel tureen that comes up to my chest, and watch as a carefully calibrated stream of water flushes into the bowl. After the water comes an autodispensed dose of soy crush–more commonly known as vegetable oil–that turns the liquid a dull yellow. Then 500 pounds of industrial flour explodes out of yet another stainless-steel pipe to join the fun. Through billowing clouds of white I catch a glimpse of the computer that runs the proprietary Domino’s software. “Step #17,” reads the screen. “Adding Flour.”
Clearly this is high-tech bioindustrialization at its finest.
Soon it’s time for a lifting machine to hoist the quarter-ton glob of dough 15 feet into the air, and then for a tilting machine to tip the entire concoction out of the tureen and into an extremely large stainless-steel hopper. “It’s going to miss the bowl,” I say.
“It may look that way,” Brandon reassures me, “but it never misses.” The dough slithers out of the tureen and into the center of the hopper; he smiles.
But a few minutes later, the next 500-pound batch hits the metal ledge of the hopper, teeters off the side, and unceremoniously plops onto the factory floor. Red lights flash, alarm bells ring, and the production line jolts to a halt.
For the first time in recorded history, a batch of Domino’s pizza dough has missed the bowl.
This demand 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.
Of course, there are those who defend the efficiencies of the homogenized paste: “The founding of Paradise Tomato Kitchens was rooted in innovation and technology,” the company’s CEO, Ron Peters, tells me in an e-mail. “With the economic challenges our customer base faces, it is our mission to help be the driving engine in our shared success.”
It may come as no surprise that the customer base and the economic challenges that concern Peters and Paradise Tomato Kitchens belong to Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Little Caesars–not to the world’s tomato growers. Indeed, as Big Pizza’s preference for globalized sauce has matured, many of the other farmers who used to make a living growing and selling tomatoes have been pushed out of business.
In Ghana, for example, locally harvested tomatoes were once a staple. But tomato concentrate has destroyed the market there–not to mention the lives of the nearly 2 million people involved in tomato cultivation in one region of the country. Despite Ghana’s farming tradition, it has become the world’s second-largest importer of process tomatoes, after Germany. As a result, according to the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, more than 700 tomato farmers have gone belly-up.
“We do not get good prices for the little harvest,” said Comfort Mantey, a tomato farmer in the Ghanaian community of Matsekope, when she was interviewed for a report on poverty in the region. “The traders tell us their customers now mix fresh tomatoes with imported tomato paste.”
Another tomato farmer, Martin Pwayidi, defaulted on the $2,000 loan he had secured from a bank and sunk into his 4 acres in 2008; no one would buy locally grown tomatoes from him. “I lost everything,” said Pwayidi to one African news outlet. “There was absolutely no reason to live.”
Sadly, this is the same conclusion arrived at by many of Pwayidi’s neighbors: Annual waves of suicides have washed across Ghana’s northern growing regions as some desperate farmers ingested the insecticide they no longer needed for their tomatoes.
The most expensive ingredient of any pizza pie is neither the dough nor the sauce, but the cheese. About half the U.S. milk supply is used to manufacture cheese, and last year’s 10 billion pounds broke all previous production records. Mozzarella recently topped Cheddar as the most popular cheese variety. And where does all that mozzarella go? Onto your pizza, of course.
Every shred of Domino’s mozzarella cheese comes from a Denver-based company called Leprino Foods, the world’s largest producer of the gooey pie topping, with sales estimated at $2.6 billion in 2009. At one point, the company held more patents related to mozzarella than anyone else in the industry. Leprino also happens to be one of the largest privately held companies in the United States, and its employees are notorious for not speaking to the press. “We’d prefer to stay under the radar,” a Leprino vice president told the Denver Business Journal several years back.
My own repeated attempts to contact James Leprino, the mozzarella billionaire the Denver Post once dubbed “Denver’s Biggest Cheese,” took me up a ladder of increasingly paranoid cheese executives until I found someone who was quite willing to talk to me for an hour–completely off the record.
According to the most recent data, Leprino 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. Put another way, one 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.
It may come as a surprise that such a thing as a global cheese market exists, and that 40-pound blocks of Cheddar are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). But ever since Ronald Reagan put an end to inflation-adjusted milk pricing, mozzarella prices have been linked to trading on the CME. And that 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.
“Farmers need to be valued economically,” says the University of Toronto’s Friedmann, but insider cheese trading has allowed the largest processors to force the price of milk into a downward spiral, as lower prices mean greater profits for the processors. In 2008, for example, a cooperative called the Dairy Farmers of America paid a civil penalty of $12 million for trying to manipulate cheese prices. 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.
“Farmers have never received less money for their milk,” says John Bunting, a dairyman from the western foothills of the Catskills, in New York State, who also writes a blog that focuses on the plight of dairy farmers. For instance, the area where Bunting lives used to be rich in milk production; as the price of milk has touched bottom, though, it has been plagued by debt and bankruptcy. “There is no one in the country making a living milking cows,” he says. “Not this year, and not last year, either. I get calls every day from just plain desperate farmers. Nobody knows what to do.”
Of course, as the country’s small dairy farmers head into bankruptcy, the largest producers of cheese have prospered. “Kraft and Leprino are on tight margins,” says Bunting. “But they have so many units running past the cash register that Jimmy Leprino can get rich.”
Last year was the worst in at least 30 years for small-scale dairymen, who lost money on every cow on every day of every month, says Bunting. Despite the losses, one upstate New York farmer, Dean Pierson, refused to let go of the 51 milking cows on the land his father had bought. Instead, Pierson took a small-caliber rifle and went through the barn he had built and shot each of his cows through the head. Then he sat down on a chair and put a bullet through his chest.
“The milk-pricing system is truly an attack on the family farm,” says Bunting, “and truly an attack on the family that operates the farm.” And 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.
Leprino’s website boasts, “Our customers benefit from the innovation and economies of scale we provide.” That is, until the drive to provide high-volume pie topping at the lowest possible cost shuts off Leprino’s milk pipeline for good.
“The system is breaking down,” says Bunting. “And no one seems to be paying attention.”
In case you’re wondering, pepperoni is a dry-cured sausage made of beef and pork. Mass-produced through scientific and capital-intensive processes, it may qualify as the ultimate excrescence of the food regime: The pepperoni on a Domino’s pie comes from commodity beef and commodity pork produced by one of the planet’s largest purveyors of protein, Tyson Foods.
Not only does Tyson supply Domino’s, but it’s also believed to sell pepperoni to Domino’s rivals Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. (Tyson keeps its customer list confidential.) In order to meet global pizza demand, the company 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,” says Tony Weis, Ph.D., a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario. “The least efficient converter of feed-to-flesh output is beef cattle,” he adds. He points out that this inefficiency means cattle have much larger land, water, and energy budgets than most people realize. 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. And as the world’s desire for cheap meat increases, so does the need for more acres of corn and wheat for feed, along with devastating increases in all the accompanying diesel fuel, 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.
“You have an increasing global demand for pepperoni pizza,” says Weis. “How is this going to be sustained with near-term rising energy costs when so much fossil energy is embedded in the pepperoni?”
Thus does the pizza trail lead to Springdale, Arkansas, and the Warhol-lined corridors of the company that hauled in nearly $27 billion last year from its sales of chicken, beef, pork, and prepared foods. The most recent architectural addition to Tyson’s world headquarters is the sun-drenched, 100,000-square-foot Discovery Center. Here, Tyson’s research and development staff of 160, including food technologists and certified culinary scientists, work with customers to develop and test new products and flavor profiles and conduct consumer research.
A giant suspended sculpture of a fork dominates the center, along with a monstrous pan that fries mammoth slices of ceramic bacon. Along the cubicle dividers hang shiny color photographs of enchiladas, chicken breasts, and of course, pepperoni pizza.
I meet with Brian Hafley, a Tyson food technologist with practically a Ph.D. in pepperoni. Actually, Hafley wrote his dissertation for his Ph.D. in food science on high-tech meat thermometers. But both of his great-grandfathers were sausage makers, and now, after 15 years in the business, Hafley has become a wiener master. “I couldn’t fight destiny,” he says.
Class dismissed; it’s time to inspect some product. Hafley strides past huge blenders and injectors and leads the way into a droning zone of Wonka-like concrete floors and metal tubing. He points out freezers, blenders, and a table piled high with spring-locked metal ham molds. Then the pepperoni professor unbolts and slides open a steel door, and we enter a refrigerated vault. In the dim light hang his latest creations, a 100-pound batch of day-old pepperoni, gently swaying against the auto-timed sprays of a humidity nozzle.
I have reached the core of the Meatrix.
The pepperoni, Hafley tells me, is under constant, computerized surveillance. Any unexpected change in temperature or humidity will sound an alarm, for a single ruined batch would set his pepperoni research back weeks, if not months.
“We can’t afford to go wrong,” says Hafley.
“We have too much invested in pepperoni.”
After serving our time in the refrigerated dungeons, we return to the test kitchens to eat (you guessed it) pepperoni pizza. It’s during this pig-out that I finally broach the topic of world hunger. Hafley gives me a blank look.
Later that week I have a phone conversation with 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,” he says. “Yes,” I reply. The intensive meat complex. “Companies that have figured out how to produce healthy food products, and make a lot of them, are helping to feed the world,” he says.
Of course this is a canned response, but then Igli proudly points to the efforts Tyson has made to relieve poverty in Africa: bringing chicken-farming practices and technologies to Rwanda. Which did not seem so much like a solution as it did more of the problem: In the drought-ridden Sub-Saharan region, large-scale chicken production would compromise precious water resources as animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals ran off into the porous, arid soil.
The solution to the mass production of protein is neither more machinery nor the deployment of Harvard business school models of efficiency to every corner of the planet. “The alternative,” notes McMichael, “is recognizing that farming is a culture, not an abstract technique. Human-scale agriculture should perform the life task of feeding all people, including those marginalized by corporate foods.”
Eventually I place a call to Domino’s CEO Doyle and ask him 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.
“The fact that our brand has global scale is the source of the question,” says Doyle. “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.” I’m about to take Doyle up on his local sourcing–was his Malaysian pizza as locally sourced as those Paradise Tomato Kitchens tomatoes, which were trucked from California to Detroit? And what about that cheese from Denver and that pepperoni from Kansas? But I’m not going to quibble over food miles and long-distance supply chains just as the CEO is inviting me out to lunch.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the home of Doyle’s white-fenced, low-slung, American-flag-bedecked, modernist headquarters. The lobby is huge, and a great circular staircase revolves around a glass-enclosed space known as the Pizza Theater. Every new employee, from marketing assistant to CEO, must spend 4 days here learning to take phone orders, compile pies, and deploy product throughout the headquarter campus. “It was fabulous,” Doyle tells me of his time at pizza school. “There is nothing as satisfying as making a great-looking pizza and doing it relatively quickly, and getting it delivered to a customer and having him be pleased with the experience.”
I observe as future Domino’s franchise owners–two from Chile, one from Indonesia–sweat next to the 465°F impingement oven, a piece of ingenious cooking technology that forces superheated air above and below a pizza-carrying conveyor belt. Lunch orders have already begun to pop up on computer screens, and the pizza makers bustle from the phones to the cutting station and back. I examine the clear plastic trays of ingredients that could produce 88 million different pizzas, as Chris Brandon proudly noted–or at the very least, 88 million pseudo-varieties of the world’s one true monolithic pizza.
In the middle of the chaos stands the instructor, Sam Fauser. As a child, Fauser’s ambition had been to work for Ford, but the assembly line he now commands is, to his mind, even better. “I live the dream every day,” says Fauser. I ask him if it isn’t a bit difficult to work with people from all over the world, from the widest variety of cultures. “We all speak a common language,” says Fauser…”the pizza language.” At which point he gives me a gift: It’s a pepperoni pizza.
My time at the Pizza Theater is coming to a close, but with all the goodbyes and thank-yous, I don’t settle down to the pie until a half hour later.
Doomsday tasted sweet, salty, and buttery, as globs of chemical umami swirl over the back of my tongue. I down one slice, then another. The crunch and the goo were addictive–unlike any pizza I had ever tasted, or would again. And as I stood and wolfed slice after slice, a horrifying holler welled up from the depths of the glass lobby.
“SELL MORE PIZZA,” clamored the budding globalists. “HAVE MORE FUN!”
This was the Domino’s cheer, explains Brandon. “You hear that quite a bit.”
One Large Pie, Hold the Guilt
By Julie Stewart
If Big Pizza leaves a bad taste in your mouth, there’s an ethical alternative: “pizza with a conscience,” the name market-research firm Mintel has given to the growing number of pizzerias that purchase either local organic ingredients or want to make pizza healthier. “We know exactly where our tomatoes come from,” says Vaughan Lazar, cofounder of Pizza Fusion, a 25-restaurant organic-pizza chain that launched in 2006. So how can you tell if one of the good guys is making the pies? Lazar recommends coming right out and asking where their ingredients come from. If the owner hems and haws or mumbles something vague, you have your answer; pizzerias that are proud of their sources will speak up and be specific. “We brag about our local farmers,” Lazar says. Of course, you’ll probably pay a few bucks more for that pizza with a conscience. But then isn’t change all about putting your money where your mouth is?
Screwed by the Food Industry
The little guys that pay the price for our cheap eatsBy Frederick Kaufman and Julie Stewart
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