Global Food Companies Respond to Local Tastes

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What does globalization taste like? The common belief is that globalization means homogenization. But global food companies are finding that just isn't true. People want their traditional foods and tastes much more than global ones.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In the business news you can export food, but you can't export taste.

Travel to Buenos Aires or Kuala Lumpur or some other exotic place, and there is usually a McDonalds and a Starbucks waiting for you. Examine store shelves and they've got Snickers bars and Wrigley's gum.

The world seems very homogenized, but some big companies are realizing that local traditions are a lot stronger than global marketing. NPR's Adam Davidson reports on the global food business.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Lucio Rizzi is the President of General Mills International, which means he sells food to a lot of people all over the world. How many?

Mr. LUCIO RIZZI (President, General Mills International): Wow. That is a difficult question. I really don't know. But I would say at most, maybe one billion people, but definitely not more than that.

DAVIDSON: That is, of course, billion, with a B. And that makes General Mills the sixth largest food company in the world.

Why would any company get that big? When you're huge, you can sell the same thing over and over again to lots of different customers. So of course Rizzi and General Mills would love it if everyone everywhere in the world liked the same kind of food.

Mr. RIZZI: Obviously! Obviously, but unfortunately, food, you know, food is so linked to the local culture and tradition of each place, that it's impossible. And this is what makes food such a difficult field.

DAVIDSON: General Mills sells lots of cereals, like Cheerios. They own Yoplait Yogurt, Old El Paso Salsa, and Pillsbury.

Mr. RIZZI: You probably are familiar with those small cans with dough inside, with which then you can make biscuits or cinnamon rolls or other types of products.

DAVIDSON: The Pillsbury Dough Boy?

Mr. RIZZI: The Pillsbury Dough Boy, yeah. Exactly.

DAVIDSON: What could be more American and less Chinese or Bolivian or Polish than the Pillsbury Dough Boy? It turns out not too many people outside the U.S. want to bake their own cinnamon rolls, or Poppin' Fresh Dough. But almost everyone everywhere has some baked doughy thing they like to eat. Maybe the dough is corn or rice or wheat. Maybe it's sweet or spicy, or filled with meat or vegetables or fruit.

Rizzi realized General Mills can't specialize in specific food products. It specializes in adaptable food technology.

Mr. RIZZI: The same technology which is behind those products that we have been marketing in this country for many years have produced refrigerated pasta in several countries.

DAVIDSON: Refrigerated pasta?

Mr. RIZZI: Pasta, yeah. Tortellini, ravioli, you know, filled pasta, dumplings in China. (Unintelligible), for instance, in Latin America, like empanadas.

DAVIDSON: This is what most global food companies do. There's some basic product - dough, hamburger, pizza, potato chips - that is adapted everywhere to local tastes.

Marianne Swaney-Stueve is with International Flavors and Fragrances, a company that works with General Mills and many others to create those local tastes. Stueve's specific job is to figure out what tastes young people will like all over the world.

(Soundbite of focus group)

DAVIDSON: Stueve recently ran a series of focus groups in Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain and the U.S., and prepared a report for her customers.

Ms. SWANEY-STEUVE: All right. Oh, there it is.

DAVIDSON: She showed some of the favorite flavors among kids in Europe.

Ms. SWANEY-STEUVE: You just don't see a lot of peach in the U.S. I mean, for kids, really at all. And peach was a big one in Europe, but peach here, kids aren't exactly into hairy things.

DAVIDSON: American kids like grape jelly, she says. But most other kids don't. British kids eat black current jelly instead. Almost all kids like orange drinks, but German kids love carrot juice.

Ms. SWANEY-STEUVE: Oh, no child here would ever say, all right, carrot, can I please have that carrot? You know, I'm not advising that for the U.S. any time soon.

DAVIDSON: Adults are just as picky. In the U.S., IFF creates flavors that mask the taste of soy milk, covering it up with chocolate or vanilla. Most Americans don't care for soy. But for the Asian market, IFF flavors are designed to make soy milk taste even more soy-like. Asian consumers love soy.

Lucio Rizzi, of General Mills, the man who feeds a billion people, says that however much it would benefit his business, he does not want tastes to become homogenized all over the world. He wants every culture to keep its local taste.

Mr. RIZZI: For instance, I would never even think of eating pesto out of the area of Genoa, or that region which is called Liguria. Pesto was born there. It uses ingredients which are only available there and not anywhere else.

DAVIDSON: Rizzi is Italian, and is loyal to Italy's regional cuisines. He'll only eat carbonara in Rome, he says, and he tries to never eat Americanized Italian food in his current hometown of Minneapolis.

And while his company does sell things like Old El Paso Salsa all over Italy, he's not worried that he might destroy Italy's local flavors. He says local cuisine is safe.

Mr. RIZZI: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. Because even, you know, in the countries, for instance, where we sell a lot of Old El Paso, still the consumers have those products, I don't know, five times a year.

DAVIDSON: Every other meal, he points out, is typically local. There are some food products that do well just about everywhere: Coke, vanilla ice cream. And global trade does change local tastes. Indian, Thai, Mexican are now more or less global cuisines. But those changes are slow; very slow, Rizzi says. And no matter how global the world's food industry becomes, the vast majority of meals eaten by the vast majority of people remain remarkably local.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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