What would melamine be doing in food?

A grocery store meat case

KAI RYSSDAL: It has contaminated pet food and livestock feed. And ow the Food and Drug Administration is looking into whether melamine that's a chemical usually found in plastics might have found its way into the human food chain. It was originally mixed into wheat gluten and rice protein imported from China.

We don't know exactly how bad it might be if melamine did get into the food supply. But the FDA is examining six grain products that are used in everything from bread to baby food.

Harry Balzer's with the market research firm NPD Group. Mr. Balzer, good to have you with us.

HARRY BALZER: Nice to be here.

RYSSDAL: Just the fact that you and I are having this conversation today indicates that at least, in some measure, food supply and food safety is something we're gonna talk about. But is it something that we take action on?

BALZER: Typically, no. That's not to say there aren't portions of the population who will respond. But generally, food safety is just something we talk about and not something we react to. And we've had a lot of these issues over the last five or six years, but we've never really seen a significant change, long-term, to the way we eat. We've seen short-term disruptions, but not long-term.

RYSSDAL: What about the short-term pain felt by some of the producers? I'm thinking now of spinach growers who lost a bunch of revenue during the E.coli scandal, and quick-food hamburger chains who lost some revenue.

BALZER: And this is why we keep this food safe, is because it is a short-term disruption. It's very painful in the short run. But in the end, you'll find a supplier who'll provide you with safe food, giving you the foods that you always wanted to eat to begin with.

RYSSDAL: OK, so let's be opportunistic about this and figure out who might benefit. Do you think organics would see a bump because of this?

BALZER: I don't think this is a bad thing for organics. Organics is certainly . . . have been growing. Right now, 21 percent of the U.S. population eats organic foods on a regular basis and that means having something that's organic at least once every two weeks. And it's a big, growing number. Every time we look at the number, it's higher than it was the quarter before. So this is a growing area. I think it will benefit. I also think locally grown will benefit from this, because I think this — what is happening right now — is something that's coming into the country, and there's probably questions about what's coming into the country and the safety of that food supply. So that I think locally grown might get a benefit from this.

RYSSDAL: Is there a price point analysis you can do here? How sensitive are consumers to the difference between something that might be imported and perhaps not as safe versus something that's local or organic and maybe a bit more expensive?

BALZER: Well, safety is paramount. You have to have a safe food supply. That generally just causes short-term disruptions, because we will not have an unsafe food supply. Even though it seems like it's unsafe or there's issues that arise, it's about 68 percent of the U.S. population believes that the food supply is safe. Now, that's not to imply the rest think it's unsafe, the rest just don't know. But that 68 percent — what interests me — is over the last six years, that number has not changed at all. Despite all the issues that we've had come. Whether it's mad cow or E.coli or acrylamide

or benzyne

or some issue that may have come in, the percent of the population that thinks the food supply is safe is almost unchanged. What changes are issues. What's the thing that we're talking about today.

RYSSDAL: Well, what is the thing we're talking about today if it's not safety of the food chain? Is it globalization and its impact on how we eat? I mean, what's right at the tip of this debate?

BALZER: Well, the truth of the matter, the driving force in our eating patterns are always two things: How easy is it to get that food, how easy is it to prepare — convenience is a driving force, and it's only how we're going to define that — and what does it cost. In 60 years, we've never let food costs rise faster than our incomes. Matter of fact, they've always declined. I don't think that's going to change. So when you move the things that are more expensive or more inconvenient, it's not something that's going with the trend.

RYSSDAL: Harry Balzer is vice president at the consumer marketing firm NPD Group in Chicago. Mr. Balzer, thanks a lot for your time.

BALZER: You're more than welcome.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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