Nestle Barge to Ply the Amazon, Bringing Ice Cream and Rage

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[Katherine Mangu-Ward]

Nestle has put together a floating supermarket barge, and on Friday it sailed the product-laden boatmarket (superboat? grocerybarge?) into brave new Amazonian emerging markets:

The world's largest food company will send a boat with 100-square meters (1,076 square feet) of supermarket space on a journey to 18 small cities and 800,000 potential consumers on the Para and Xingu rivers in Brazil, before starting the journey again. The vessel will carry 300 different goods including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices.

My first reaction: Neat! It's like having an ice cream truck come to your house, which must be especially exciting when your house is in a remote fishing city in Brazil. Second reaction: Irresistible desire to make "whatever floats your boat" jokes.

Apparently that reaction is not shared by all. At Alternet, Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, calls this an "especially disgusting news item" about which "writing about it is the only way I know to release my outrage. My version of screaming from the rooftop."

Her post was tweeted approvingly by food luminaries like the New York Times' Mark Bittman and (the late) Gourmet's Ruth Reichl, who suggested that reading it would be a good way to bring one's blood to a rolling boil. Simon writes:

If there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature, Big Food will find them, by land or by sea, and set them straight.

Life without powered milk and snacks--even if they are appropriately low priced and nutritionally enhanced, as many of the products on the boat are--would somehow be better, purer, simpler, Simon suggests: "They probably don't even realize they are missing out on Toll House, Raisinets, and Sno-Caps," and Nestle should leave it that way. Her reaction is pretty much the opposite of "whatever floats your boat"--something more along the lines of "that boat had better be powered by locally-grown leafy greens, mister!"  

But "subsisting" in they key word in that quote. People want more than subsistence--they want variety, and pleasure, and novelty. This is the sentence that caught my attention in the original article, although my blood remained at a steady simmer:

Nestle expects as many as 1 billion people in emerging markets to exit poverty and be able to afford its products in the coming decade.

Nestle is sending its boat into the hinterlands precisely because those hinterlands are now full of people who might be able to swing the purchase of the occasional chocolate bar, something well outside the scope of their financial lives just a few years ago. Hardly the sort of thing that makes me want to take to the rooftops--or the Internet--to express my outrage.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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