Del Monte's banana processing building at China Basin, erected in the 1920s, between 3rd and 4th along Mission Creek. Photo: San Francisco History Room, SF Public Library, San Francisco, CA
It was the closest thing to an assembly line that I had ever worked. The complaints were the raw material. The final product was soothed feelings, assurances of quality and care. It was the production of ideology, really. Trust in the system, in the humanitarianism of big companies like Del Monte.
The production process? The mail would come in big bags early in the afternoon. Somebody would do the initial sort: promotional correspondence (things like people sending in 15 coupons for taco holders) off to the promo half of the office, boxes in a bin, rest of the letters to us. The boxes were gross. People would send back food, yummy things like TV dinners put back in the carton and mailed, worm-ridden prunes, cans of discolored Chinese food (love those rotting bean sprouts).
The food might sit in someone's house for a couple days, then be sent through the U.S. Postal System where it would be thrown about, dropped, stamped, crushed. It would reach its destination, only to sit in an overheated office for a week or more. We, the clerical workers, weren't required to open the boxes. The supervisors were supposed to, which was fine with us. The idea was probably that the supes were better able to deal with the health hazard of decay. Now and then one would go through the bin and try to stretch the distinction between a box and a letter, giving us the small boxes to be opened along with the letters. I let this slide just once before I began immediately and obviously dumping the boxes right back into the bin.
Not that the letters were much better. People felt obliged to send us the sticks they almost choked on, the "field debris" (worms, mouse carcasses, dirt clods) they found in their cans, discolored, misshapen pear halves wrapped in baggies and made even more discolored and misshapen by automatic postal equipment.
The department responded to an astounding volume of complaints. I was there in the slow season when we were handling 250-300 a day. The letters would be opened, date stamped, read, and then coded. In coding, we would write down Del Monte's standard name for the product and a code for the complaint. The can codes were an issue. The label asked that customers include the letters and number found on the bottom of the can when writing about problems. Encapsulated in that nine-unit alphanumeric code was the date and location of the packaging. Needless to say, consumers were very interested in cracking the code. People would want to know the age of some cans they had just bought at a warehouse sale or had found at the back of Grandma's shelf. No help from Del Monte.
The information from the coding would be entered into a computer. The computer would (1) compile management reports on all this information and (2) spit out a personable letter, supposedly from the head of the department but in actuality signed by anybody, expressing grave personal concern for the unfortunate experience and assuring intensive quality control. Coupons good for the purchase of more Del Monte products would be offered as compensation.
There was a bizarre schema for determining how much compensation the Customer would receive. For a 50 cent corn of peaches with a worm in it, the customer would get a $1 coupon if she noticed the worm upon opening the can. If she dumped the peaches into a pot and saw the worm, she would get $2. If the peaches reached the table, $4. If the wormy peach was dished out onto a plate, $6. If somebody bit Mr. Worm in half, she would get the grand prize of $8 worth of coupons. For choking, if done by an adult, $3 -- if by a child, $5.
When customers wanted an explanation, they usually got it -- but the explanations were disingenuous. We had form letters detailing the dangers of old, rusty, bent cans. (Surprise! Don't eat food from cans that are leaking and smell funny.) Another letter assured that canned fruits and vegetables were just as nutritious as fresh -- after, of course, chemicalized vitamins and minerals were added back in to substitute for those killed in the preserving process. The supervisors were trained to identify chemical compounds or different species of insects that might be found in someone's package. When the supes were stumped, they sent it off to the lab who could do chemical analyses or identify, say, a found bolt as coming from the drying machine for raisins. If a customer was really hurt, the complaint went to Legal so that they could fast-talk her into signing releases in exchange for minimal, but quick, reimbursement.
The response would be sent, and the complaint would be filed along with any materials that accompanied it. Squished-up pears, rotting worms and stale breakfast pastries would be stuck in the filing cabinet. The office reeked -- and this was in the winter. I understand that in summer the place stinks to high heaven.
After working in the office a while, most of the workers found themselves avoiding canned and frozen foods -- especially the "problem products" like cream corn or canned salsa. (I myself opened at least six letters relating how palls were cast on New Year's Eve parties when someone fished up broken glass on their tortilla chip.) Some workers frankly said they were revolted by the stuff. Some asserted that fresh vegetables were healthier. Others commented that most of the letters were from out of state; in California, though, we have a completely different way of eating (the snooty way out).
Whatever the reason, we were all alienated from seeing the problems of the corresponding consumers as our problem, too. We knew better than to buy the stuff in the first place.
The Price of Grain & the Price of Blood
The Third World is starving. Some would claim that it is wrong to be concerned with alienation and sensual deprivation in the U.S. when many people can't even get a minimal daily serving of rice and beans. Such an attitude fails to see the interrelatedness of the problems, how the same institutions are responsible for both. It also misses the possibility for a politics rooted in our daily life, leaving us powerless to do anything except donate money to this or that relief agency.
In Food First by Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, you can look up Del Monte in the index, and then go down the sublistings to find the sublistings to find out how the company usurps traditional farm practices in different areas.
In Costa Rica the company gives special loans to politically well-placed landowners.
In Guatemala, Del Monte owns 57,000 acres of agricultural land but plants only 9,000. The rest is fenced off just to keep the peasants from using it.
In Mexico the company pays the farmers 10 cents a pound for asparagus that it gets 23 cents a pound for in the United States.
In the Philippines armed company agents coerce peasants into leasing their land to Del Monte's pineapple plantations. Cattle have been driven onto planted fields to destroy crops, the peasants and their animals are bombarded with aerial sprays.
See also sublistings for Kenya, Hawaii, and Crystal City, Texas.
An anonymous source in Del Monte middle management relates a bit of company lore. In the early seventies, a new data entry clerk punched in the wrong destination code for a 480-boxcar shipment of lima beans grown in the Philippines. Instead of arriving in Japan for processing, the limas wound up, completely rotten, in Kenya. The company fired the clerk and cavalierly wrote off the loss as a food donation to starving Africa. Such charity.
A principal mechanism used for the destruction of native food systems is the conversion to export-oriented cash economies. The best lands are stolen / bought by the corporations -- or, more usually, by their agents in the local upper class. Companies like Del Monte serve as the notorious "middleman," taking over the secondary role of broker, shipper, packer, merchandiser. The displaced peasantry surge onto marginal land which is quickly exhausted, farmed to death. Those remaining work for wages on the coffee, cocoa, rubber, luxury vegetable plantations. They buy their food from stores, much of it now imported and alien to the native cuisine.
Here in the U.S. the best lands are obliterated by housing tracts, shopping malls, industrial plants. I grew up in the Marysville-Yuba City area of California. Dividing the two towns is the Feather River. Like the Nile, the Feather River used to flood once a year, depositing a layer of fertile silt. This silt built up into a topsoil suitable for wonderfully productive orchards. The area used to be forested with peach, walnut, almond and plum trees. Until the construction of expensive, ecologically destructive dams, the towns used to worry about rainy season flooding. As I was growing up, more and more of the orchards were covered over by housing tracts. Immediately outside of town began the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a region not as suitable for intensive farming but more pleasant for living (above the fog, below the snow, and with a view). And the foothills didn't flood. It seemed obvious that people should live in the hills and leave the valley floor either in its natural state or as farmland. As an adolescent, I would spend afternoons mapping such ideal communities, sketching in community greenhouses and herb gardens as well as libraries, theaters, and hospitals.
-- Mark Leger; this is excerpted from a longer piece "Dear Del Monte" that originally appeared in Processed World magazine #15, Winter 1985.