Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What Greece Makes, the World Might Take

by Adam Davidson

New York Times

July 3, 2012

It has been years since anyone said anything positive about the Greek economy. But as one Greek economist recently told me, there’s a local saying that when a spring is pressed down hardest, it can spring back the fastest. Let’s consider the country’s natural resources, or at least two of them. Feta cheese, which is increasingly popular throughout the world, is mandated by an E.U. ruling to come from Greece. The country also harvests arguably the best olives for making olive oil. Yet somehow Greece has only 28 percent of the global feta market and a mere 4 percent share of the international olive-oil industry.

How is this possible? In the last decade or so, companies in the United States, France, Denmark and elsewhere flouted the feta ruling and invested in their own food-science research and manufacturing equipment. They subsequently turned the salty, crumbly cheese into spreadable, grillable, fat-free and shelf-stable forms. In Italy and Spain, small olive-oil producers merged into globally competitive conglomerates and replaced presses with more efficient centrifugal technology. The two countries now provide nearly all the world’s supply. And the Greeks, despite their numerous inherent advantages, remain in the least profitable part of the supply chain, exporting raw materials at slim margins.

Tassos Chronopoulos, owner of Tassos, a Greek food importer based outside Chicago, says that the country’s disorganized agricultural business all but disqualified itself from partaking in the fancy-food craze of the past few decades. Greek growers never banded together to establish uniform quality standards and trade rules. (Chronopoulos often found bottles spiked with cheaper vegetable oil.) Frequent strikes at large ports damaged food and reputations. Until he found a reliable partner, Chronopoulos says that he constantly opened new shipments to see bottles with labels askew, wrinkled or missing. “They do not understand,” he says, “that a label not applied properly will make the sales suffer.”


Illustration by Peter Oumanski

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