The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
Benjamin Lorr
Avery, 2020, 336 pages

In the introduction to The Secret Life of Groceries, author Benjamin Lorr recounts the time a slaughterhouse supervisor took him on a tour of his facility. Forklifts moved cages of factory-farmed chickens to a machine that slices their carotid artery at a rate of 140 birds per minute. The dying birds were then whisked through a tunnel where they were blasted with hot water and defeathered — and emerged “a whizzing gleaming globe of meat racing forward on the line.”

Interior Grocery Décor
“An item within the grocery matrix loses its identity as food and becomes product … defined by the cubic inches of its packaging, its price per unit, and the velocity of its sales,” Lorr writes. Photo by I-5 Design & Manufacture.

“That is the precise point they go from living thing to food,” the supervisor tells Lorr, reflecting the efficiency and uniformity that defines the ago-industrial complex.

But The Secret Life of Groceries follows the food further, into the world of marketers, buyers, warehouse managers, and retailers, “whose lives and choices define our diet.” Here, Lorr sees that, just as a living chicken “transforms” into food, “an item within the grocery matrix loses its identity as food and becomes product … defined by the cubic inches of its packaging, its price per unit, and the velocity of its sales.” The name of the game is convenience and consistency for the consumer, efficiency and gross profit for the retailer.

This book is the product of Lorr’s five-year dive into the heart of this grocery matrix. His investigation takes him from specialty-food conferences to truck routes to warehouses to the retail floor itself — including a stint when Lorr worked behind the fish counter at a New York City Whole Foods. The result is an in-depth, often discomforting, look at a place that many of us might take for granted.

In the United States, average adults spend about 2 percent of their lives inside a grocery store. In 2018, Americans spent more than $700 billion at supermarkets. “[Grocery stores] are the point of interface most familiar and least understood in our food system: bland to the point of invisibility, so routine they blur into background,” Lorr writes. “And yet the grocery store exists as one of the only places where our daily decisions impact — make us complicit in — a system we have come in equal parts to scorn and see as a savior.”

Lorr calls the grocery supply chain an “interconnected network of human beings working on other humans’ behalf.” He outlines the history of the American grocery store, from early goods vendors to mid-century expansions that reflected the mass quantities of agriculture’s Green Revolution, to the recent acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon.

Within that narrative emerges the picture of a retail system that promises abundance and low prices for consumers, and puts the cost on laborers in the supply chain. That includes truckers who are “designed to be worn to failure” in an industry that’s “structurally vampiric,” salespeople at supermarkets who throw years of their life at minimum-wage jobs selling the “myth of abundance” through food products that they can’t always afford to buy themselves, and fishers exploited in faraway countries like Thailand to produce the bags of shrimp found in frozen food sections across the US.

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Lorr’s book may be centered on the grocery store, but it’s really about the convenience and efficiency that define food retail, its “blessings of uniformity,” and its hidden human costs. Grocery is a reflection of our society, he says. “The adage is all wrong: It’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are.”

Lorr’s writing style is conversational: His anecdotes flow off the page, but his explanations sometimes get tripped up in tangents and excessively long footnotes, and often lose cohesion. Regardless, The Secret Life of Groceries adds a necessary frame of reference to the food production conversation led by farmers-slash-writers like Tom Philpott, Wendell Berry, Leah Penniman, and others — as well as food system academics like Raj Patel and Marion Nestle. But unlike Nestle, who confidently tells her audiences to “vote with your fork,” Lorr expresses an honest sense of powerlessness in the face of the corporatized supply chain on which the average American consumer depends.

Individual consumer behavior can go only so far to reform grocery, Lorr concludes. What’s left is a question for the retailers, and the society they reflect: “Convenience is the great gift the grocery store gives to the customer. Efficiency its great technique for delivering it. But when you make convenience itself an end point, what then?”