I was feeling the munchies and found a vending machine, which, to my amazement, would take credit cards for a purchase as low as $0.50. I stood before a cornucopia of delights from all over the world (candies, nuts, muffins, dried fruit, beef jerky, energy shots) each available with the push of a button, and had to choose. When I face such a situation, I can’t help but recall the discoveries of historians and anthropologists of how the largest swath of all known history has consisted of human beings struggling for the next meal. Instead of running around fields, digging in the dirt, or risking life on the high seas, we stand in front of machines and swipe a plastic card.
Clothing and housing were easy by comparison to the great problem of getting food – especially when it had to come mostly from what was available in near proximity. If there was no meat, you would have to do without. The first great improvement in packaging, shipping, and storing meat (without refrigeration) came only in 1937 with Hormel’s great product called Spam, short for spiced ham. Now we use the term to mean emails we do not want. The progress we’ve made in food technology over the last half century absolutely boggles the mind.
Tuna for Nothing
Back to the vending machine. My eye fell on a box of Bumble Bee Tuna Salad. It included crackers. It cost $1.50. It’s just sitting there in a machine awaiting my purchase. It’s not refrigerated. It even comes with a plastic spoon! Within minutes, I’m eating what would have been regarded by anyone anywhere throughout history as an incomparable banquet of delectable eating perfection.
Just think of the core ingredient, the tuna itself. Somehow we think of this as no big deal. But I don’t know anyone who lives anywhere near a place where you can catch a tuna. You have to travel by boat to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, or the Black Sea. If you time it just right, you might find them off the North American coast. This is because these amazing fish are always on the move.
You have to be in a boat on the high seas for weeks following these beasts around. And it turns out to be one of the most dangerous jobs. The Center for Disease Control lists commercial fishing of this sort as “one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.” To avoid injury and survived requires special training.
Even if you had a sea in your backyard, it takes special equipment to snag one of these beauties and reel in these. They weigh between 300 and 1,000 pounds! I have a hard enough time with a 3-pound bass.
Fortunately, because of the division of labor, there are people who do this for me, full time. I’ve never met a tuna fisherman and none has ever met me. But I benefit enormously from their labors: catching, cleaning, storing, preparing, packaging, delivering, and waiting in the hope that someday I will get the munchies and spend one dollar and fifty cents.
Talk about good fortune!
But there’s more than just the delicious tuna in this can. It also includes salt. We think nothing of salt today, but we forget that salt was once so valuable that it was used as money. Have you lately tried your favorite food, whatever it is, without salt? I’ve variously made bread or cakes without it, and it’s absolutely shocking how lifeless food is without salt. Today it is so ubiquitous that there is a big market in extremely fancy salts with snob appeal, whereas plain-old salt gets no love or appreciation from anyone.
Also, this tuna salad includes eggs. Everyone knows where they came from. But think of the improbable coordination that has to happen to have a chicken farmer come together with a tuna fisherman to combine the ingredients into a single food, each complementing the other. Then also have the addition of vegetable oil, which itself requires a complete different process of production.
I Don’t Want to Grow Celery
Where does the “salad” part come from? This small can also contains both celery and carrots, meaning that an entire growing season is necessary. I became curious about the celery part, in particular, to discover that celery turns out to be extremely difficult to grow, according to the University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center.
“Celery seed is very small and difficult to germinate,” say the experts. For this reason, “all commercial celery is planted as transplants grown in greenhouses and nurseries.” It requires constant watering. It is mostly harvested by hand. Further, the costs are high. “Celery is one of the high-cost crops in the coastal regions of Southern, California.”
The Amazing Can
My most immediate worry when I opened the package was the can. I don’t have a can opener. It turns out that I didn’t need one. It is a can with a peel-off top. I have no idea who invented this but it is absolutely brilliant. The top has this small tab that easily lifts off, requiring no skill at all. We don’t often think about packaging but consider how perfect it has to be. This can has to sit in a vending machine for months on end without being bought and then still be fresh when you open it.
How can this happen given that it also contains mayonnaise and eggs? Well, the ingredients specify that the mayo is “heat stable” which I am supposing involves some high-end processing.
Truly, I can’t even fathom how all this comes together to provide me this wonderful snack. We are talking about a dozen different industries, thousands of processes, and potentially millions of inventions once you include all the boating, growing, shipping, canning, and even the making of the cute little spoon that is included, not to mention to the machine that gave me the tune and processed my credit card too.
What am I leaving out? Oh yes, the crackers. Pictures wheat fields in the mid-west, grain silos, giant mixers, ovens, machines for shaping and cutting. It’s a massive production just to give me these five small crackers.
Here is what is so amazing. It all happens without any central direction from the top down. In fact, we can go further to say that it could not happen under central direction. No government bureaucrat made this possible. They only get in the way. You need owners, marketers, manufacturers, prices, markets, banks, millions of people, and thousands upon thousands of rounds of trading across dozens of countries, plus many years, decades, and centuries of economic development, all ending in a sweet little healthy snack just for me.
And here’s the kicker. It all works at all levels thanks to human choice. Every worker along the way is there by his or her own volition. None of it works at all if, at the last stage of consumer choice, I would decide to get the snickers bar instead. I didn’t. I bought the tuna salad. It set me back one dollar and fifty cents. And we don’t even need to express gratitude. We buy, eat, and forget it. This is why it is called the miracle of the market.