U.S. Test Kitchen

American’s “secret weapon” in value-added food exports is a one-two punch combining an immigrant-accepting society with an importing-accepting society.

How’s that, you say? Doesn’t the United States have trade barriers and, in any case, how can accepting immigrants and food imports help boost food exports?

Although it is true that the United States has its share of trade barriers, for the most part, these are focused on large-scale crops such as sugar or on certain raw imports such as fruits that pose phytosanitary challenges to America’s farmers.

In fact, the U.S. market is rather open to most processed food products. If one attends one of the three annual Fancy Food Shows, sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, one is astounded at the enormous variety of products brought into the United States from every corner of the world.

The large immigrant population in the United States provides a natural consumer base for these imports. Italian-Americans, for example – and for this calculation, we can use both recent immigrants and second, third, fourth and even further generations – provide a ready market for loads of Italian imports.

This leads us on an interesting path, though, which starts with heavy imports but ends with heavy exports. Once that immigrant base exists, the Italian products are widely displayed in stores, Italian restaurants open up all over and, quite often, Americans with no Italian ancestry start trying Italian food.

The combination of the large Italian immigrant community, plus the wide popularity of Italian foods with Americans of other heritages, leads to a desire to manufacture Italian-style foods in the United States.

Once again, the large immigrant population creates an opportunity. The large numbers of immigrants create a ready labor force skilled at making the foods of a given country.

Finally, as these foods are produced domestically, the flavor profiles are often changed slightly or done in particular variations to meet the tastes of the various groups that populate the country.

So Italian-style food is produced to suit all types of people. If a brand is going to be successful in, say, the southwestern United States, it really has to appeal to the tastes of Mexican-Americans. If it is going to win in New York City, well, Puerto Ricans are a big portion of the population.

What this winds up meaning is the United States is sort of a giant test kitchen carefully formulating versions of Italian food suited to sell in third countries.

This is a completely different situation than one finds in most of the world. I spent a portion of last summer in Italy and, of course, everywhere I went, I was overwhelmed by the quality of the food. The produce was fresh and full of flavor, the sauces magnificent. It is hard to overstate the wonders of Italian cuisine.

Yet, the food choices were also exceedingly limited. It is common in towns in the United States to find a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a French restaurant and much more. Even subdivisions of these cuisines – a Szechwan Chinese restaurant as opposed to one serving Cantonese food – are rather common. Larger cities teem with Indian food, Moroccan cuisine, dishes of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Germany, Japan, etc.

In Italy, other than a few Chinese restaurants, we found it very difficult to eat anything other than Italian food.

It is this diverse eating pattern that is the secret weapon the United States brings to the international trade of value-added food products. Logically enough, a people who eat a wide variety of food types also will produce a diversity of food.

The whole process is a lesson that natural resources, though surely valuable, are often trumped in importance by cultural factors. The wide receptivity of American culture to new people and new foods, the willingness to experiment with cuisine by the common man, even the entrepreneurial culture that makes it relatively easy for often underfinanced but hard-working immigrants to start a food manufacturing business, all combine to turn nature’s cornucopia of raw agricultural product into the world’s one-stop-shopping center for value-added foods.

All this stands as a rebuke to those who look to limit trade and reduce the flow of culture from country to country. It reminds us that if we shut the door, we not only deny others opportunity to come in but deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from others. In a world where trade is the subject of hot dispute, this is well worth remembering.